The book club selection for September was the National Book Award finalist, A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert. The book centers around the descendants of a British suffragette, Dorothy Trevor Townsend, who starved herself to death for the cause because there was nothing else she could do – a perfect example of what Joan Jacobs Brumberg calls “the appetite as voice.”
The choices made by her descendants also demonstrate the constraints placed on women throughout the twentieth century. The suffragette’s daughter, Evelyn, moves to America to attend Barnard College, eventually becoming a respected professor of chemistry. Like other women scientists (or other academics) of her generation, she must give up family and children for her career. The suffragette’s grand niece, also named Dorothy, goes in the opposite direction, choosing the standard female script of marriage and motherhood, only to find herself at a consciousness raising group in the early 1970s among other women suffering from the feminine mystique. Dorothy’s daughter, on the other hand, is part of the “opt out” generation, confronting boredom and isolation broken only by the occasional carefully orchestrated playdate.
In my opinion, this book fully deserves all the positive press it’s received. As with her earlier books, Walbert’s writing is beautiful and compelling. Yes, the book’s structure is difficult to follow at times, but for me that contributed to its charm. If you don’t like nonlinear narratives, then it’s best to avoid this book, or at least be very patient. If you love Virginia Woolf or similar authors, then this book is for you.