Usually, when I read a novel I like, the first third of the book blows me away, the second third is a little tougher to get through, and by the final third I’m feeling disappointed. Either I don’t want the book to end, or—more likely—I have developed unrealistic expectations based on the excitement of the first third. With A Short History of Women, however, my emotional relationship with the book was the opposite. The first third of the book was disappointing, the second was more engaging, and by the end I had decided I liked the book after all.
I very much like the idea of Walbert’s novel, a genealogy based on five generations of women from the same family. Her style, though, takes a little getting used to. Rather than the traditional method of introducing characters at the beginning and developing them throughout the novel, Walbert writes as if you are familiar with her characters from the start. Most of the book is used to introduce new characters, leaving little time to develop already existent ones. Narrating chapters from various characters’ voices is no new literary device, but usually this tool is used to show different perspectives concerning a common plot line or theme. A Short History feels more like individual diary entries compiled into a collection than a unified novel. Each chapter comes to us from one of seven different voices, somewhere between 1898 and 2007, eclipsing the possibility for a consolidated whole. Even within each chapter, there are many flashbacks and descriptions of other characters, resulting in a disjointed and unbalanced portrait.
In addition to this limiting narrative style, Walbert’s writing seems to skim the surface most of the time, attempting brief moments of depth without the requisite emotional foundation and background. It is difficult to relate to characters of whom we are allowed only occasional glimpses.
What I did like about the book, the only theme that held each separate narrative together, was the focus on “The Woman Question.” Beginning with the character of the English matriarch who starved herself for suffrage, literally dying from a hunger strike, we see the “problem” of women dealt with by each character, regardless of time and place. The “problem” takes on different meanings in each context, but it is ever-present and pervasive in all of the lives of which we allowed brief glances.
The other great thing about this book was that one of its central characters—daughter to the British suffragist—moves to New York and attends Barnard College. Thus we are given descriptions of the college in 1919 when she is a Barnard student and in 1945 and 1985, when she is a Barnard professor. When she is a new student, she describes the Barnard girls:
“The other Barnard students like the city itself, changing their names, their hairstyles, hustling into rooms and then out again. They talk and talk and talk, their cigarettes in long, ebony pipes….They might study English literature or they might switch to anthropology….Somewhere, right now, a female chimp is fashioning a better tool from a rock! Evolution! they rave, though no, on principle they have taken a strong position against forced sterilization however with Margaret Sanger they are in complete alliance on all other matters: No Gods, No Masters.
Look at us! they shout. Look at us!” (97)
This was great, not just for its allusion to Margaret Sanger and her less-remembered advocacy of sterilization, but for the description of Barnard girls as excited and politicized, but also restless and possibly unsure. And then in a throw-back to the Barnard days that my grandmother experienced:
“The lectures in the humanities spilling out of open windows, the other girls and the Columbia boys and the Friday night dances and the chaperoned Tuesday teas and the Etiquette and Fine Living and Good Manners clubs.” (166)
Now I can be sure that my grandmother was not making up stories of teas in the Dean’s lounge and Friday dances where Columbia boys (there were no Columbia girls then) asked Barnard girls to dance and sometimes even escorted them to their doors! She also told me about the mandatory courses in “Modern Living” where she was taught by Millicent McIntosh (not a joke) how to balance her education with housework and other wifely duties.
In 1985, this character is a retired Barnard professor who is aided in her old age by a Barnard scholarship student. When asked what she is reading for class, the young student replies, “Wordsworth…my required dose of dead white men” (235). Perfect.
Aside from my obvious pleasure at reading about the Barnard of yore, I’m not sure I would recommend this book to non- Barnard alumnae (assuming they would enjoy reading these descriptions as much as I did). I feel as though this book should be rewritten with a new family, new stories, and new characters. The concept is fabulous, but I think the scope should be more focused, maybe with three generations rather than five and four or five voices instead of seven. Despite its shortcomings, I did enjoy the book by its end. I think the idea of a genealogy of women has incredible potential and I hope I come across it again.