In my last review, I wrote about Shelley Peterson’s young adult books Dancer and Abby Malone. Today I’m looking at two books that are a bit more mature, and sometimes even downright unsettling: Making Light of Tragedy and Bad Imaginings.
As we continue on with the feminist review series here at the Porcupine’s Quill, we’ve decided to spice things up a little bit for you. Now, you’ll have the opportunity to win one of the books I discuss here on the blog. Comment at the bottom of this post OR “like” the link to this post on our facebook page and you will be entered to win a free copy of Making Light or Bad Imaginings. Comments need not be elaborate, just something quick and fun!
The contest closes the morning of Friday, June 8, so get commenting and liking!
Jessica Grant and Caroline Adderson have a way of making their readers feel uncomfortable. Their respective short story collections, Making Light of Tragedy and Bad Imaginings, create in their readers the sense that something is just not quite right. They introduce us to grandmothers who never wanted children, women who fantasize about being taken hostage by bank robbers, and shy office workers who spend their free time composing penis poems from spam email subject lines. Grant and Adderson challenge expectations. They drop characters into our laps we never thought we’d meet, put them into situations we never dreamed possible. And we squirm, pulling away from the uncomfortable prose, but we are also transfixed. Because while we know it’s wrong, all wrong—there is also something about it that just feels so right.
Grant and Adderson take different approaches, but they end up in the same place: contemplating the challenges that face modern women. In my first review for this blog I spoke about Sailor Girl and Little Comrades, two books about women struggling for equality in an exceedingly androcentric world. While Little Comrades precedes the Civil Rights Movement and second-wave feminism, Sailor Girl directly follows it. Both feature women fighting fiercely against sexism and prejudice in an effort to assert their own identities. Making Light and Bad Imaginings, in contrast, feature modern women. For these women, the Civil Rights Movement is a distant memory and equality between the sexes is the norm. But change is not always easy, and the women in Making Light and Bad Imaginings are often left pondering their freedom and wondering what freedom actually means to them.
The idea of the modern woman struck me quite suddenly when I was reading Jessica Grant’s “Dawn.” Throughout her collection, Grant sets women into binaries. Women like this and women like that. The story preceding “Dawn,” for example, sets the binary up clearly when a scattered woman attempts to apply for a job at Holt Renfrew. However, it wasn’t until “Dawn” that Grant’s message became clear to me.
“What’s it like to be Dawn?” the protagonist of “Dawn” wonders (Grant 72). Dawn is “lovely” with soft skin and “blond hair that floats like a Jim Henson creation” (71). Dawn is perfect. She “won’t say anything mean about anyone” and loves unconditionally “just because she does” (72). The protagonist of the story, on the other hand, is ironic and discontent. She has a blithe disregard for her appearance and still wears “the same chunky [jewellery] she wore in high school” (72). She openly mocks their boss, “Not-So-Jolie,” and calls “discontent her prime directive” (72). It is no wonder then that she yearns to understand her co-worker, the selfless, unconditionally affectionate enigma: Dawn.
But as the story progresses, we begin to understand why Dawn is unknowable.
Dawn likes to give the protagonist a little treat every week. Dawn emails her co-worker a photo of a half-naked man. He is usually wet, from sweat or from an outside source like a leaking faucet or misting waterfall. He is always tanned and muscular, usually posed relaxing after hauling hay, fixing a broken sink, or securing a crucial support beam. He is predictably sexy: a construction hat cocked to one side, a tool belt strategically placed. After Dawn has emailed the photo, she comes over to the protagonist’s computer and sets it as the background. For Dawn this is the ultimate gift. “She winks at me. She is so sure this is just what I need” (71). The protagonist finds this weekly ritual unpleasant. “I’d prefer full frontal,” she says (71). “Give me raunchy and pornographic. Then I could point at the screen and laugh. But I’m not allowed to laugh at these men. They are a gift. From Dawn to me” (71). The pictures Dawn sends are painfully void of meaning; they are stereotypes: stereotypes of men, stereotypes of sex, stereotypes of female desire. And in many ways they are just like Dawn.
We begin to understand that Dawn, like the pictures of half-naked men, completely lacks personality. “What’s it like being Dawn?” the protagonist wonders. She has no idea because, even after all the time she has spent with Dawn, she knows nothing about Dawn’s life—nothing about her marriage, her divorce, or her now-ex-husband. Dawn is perfect, with flawless skin, but she is a complete blank. She leaves the protagonist confused, longing to laugh, but knowing she shouldn’t.
In the last scene of “Dawn,” as the protagonist is leaving the office for the night she runs into Dawn with her ex-husband. The protagonist finally meets the ex-spouse. She gazes into his face, and it is not at all what she expected. It would appear that the protagonist is not the only one that longs to know Dawn.
“You baffle him, Dawn. It’s written all over his slouch and his blink. He’s utterly baffled because—because sometimes he things he still loves you, but then he actually sees you, comes face to blank face, and he realizes he doesn’t. Not at all. Your hair is just way too frouffy.” (75)
In “Dawn” Grant’s comparison between types of women is at its clearest. Dawn arguably embodies the traditional characteristics of femininity. Dawn is recognizably “female.” She is beautiful and takes great care with her appearance. She is kind and she loves unconditionally. But Dawn is not enough. She perfectly represents an idea, but that idea is not enough to sustain her as a character. Enter the protagonist, a strange, bitter woman. While the protagonist herself admits that she lacks Dawn’s charm, Grant never leaves us doubting that the protagonist is a whole person, oddities and all. She may not be a perfect picture of femininity, but she is real. As she tells herself: “You, author of the Penis-Subject-Line Poem, you’re a pretty funny gal. Get a grip” (75).
Caroline Adderson similarly challenges our expectations in Bad Imaginings. She introduces us to mothers who resent their children, wives who leave their husbands, and little girls who crush caterpillars with rocks. Best demonstrated in her short story “The Planet Earth,” Adderson troubles traditional female roles in much the same way Grant does.
In “The Planet Earth” Adderson tells the story of two young women who leave the small town of their origin in order to make it in the big city. Their hometown of Hope is everything the city is not; it is small and traditional, a place without many opportunities for the girls. As they leave, they are both aware that they are running away from the bleak life Hope represents. Denise is running away from her parents and the prospect of an unhappy marriage formed from “financial dependency” rather than love (Adderson 71). Denise sees her mother as stuck in her rotting marriage, ever “the melodramatic maiden tied to the tracks of life”—a fate she is keen to avoid for herself (70). Barbara, alternatively, is running away from her three pregnant older sisters and the prospect of becoming a mother right out of high school. As Barbara says, she “wanted to live a little before that happened to her” (67).
When they arrive in Vancouver, however, they find they have traded one batch of traditional female stereotypes for a whole slew of new ones, and their lives in the city are just as prescribed as they would have been back in Hope. As can be expected, Denise and Barbara are slotted into the most common female binary there is: “one reasonably brainy, the other with good legs” (67). They follow the paths chosen for them. Denise, the reasonably brainy one, gets a job waiting tables at a vegan cafe called the Planet Earth while Barbara, the one with good legs, takes typing and shorthand courses at a local college. Barbara’s courses lead to a job at an insurance firm and a husband in an insurance salesman named Doug. When the story picks up over a decade later, Barbara is disillusioned and dissatisfied, a depressed housewife rehearsing her “marathon of woes” for Denise:
“She wanted to escape the house, to get a job, but had lost confidence when she found out that typewriters had become obsolete…. She never learned to drive a car. There were thirty extra pounds unevenly and unflatteringly distributed all over her body….” (66)
To top it all off, she has completely lost interest in having sex with her husband. “I just don’t want Doug touching me anymore,” she says (66).
Denise, as can be expected, never married. She swore off monogamy when she lost Barbara to Doug. Instead, she got a part-time job proofreading for a publisher and paid her way through university. Upon graduation, she got a job as a freelance editor and, in a fit of nostalgia, bought up the Planet Earth where she used to work. Denise is completely independent—financially and emotionally—and she is even a small business owner. But all those years alone have hardened her, “slender had made way for gaunt, blonde for an adulterated shade” (71). Standing before her mirror at the age of thirty-nine, she sees herself in a stark new light: as “a woman alone” (71).
Just when we have settled, just when we are comfortable with the roles we see before us—the depressed housewife, the hardened career woman—Adderson flips everything on its head. Denise decides that she has been wrong all these years when she realizes that her parents really did love each other (albeit in their own, slightly dysfunctional way). Denise no longer wants to be alone: she wants commitment and marriage. Just as Denise is hopping into bed with matrimony, Barbara is hopping out of it. (Though, with a little bit of a push from Denise….)
Barbara leaves Doug, determined “to get her life on a different track,” beginning with learning how to drive (76). “If she could drive a car, she could steer her life. She knew it. It gave her hope” (76). With determination and fortitude, Barbara does indeed take driving lessons, and driving does indeed give her the freedom she longs for. On her first solo trip in the car she is “skimming down the highway, dizzy with the triumph of coming this far” (80). She is “bolstered” by her recklessness, her independence (81). She is driving unfettered, uninsured, and—since she failed her driving test due to one poorly executed parallel park—illegally.
“She was free from the strictures of The Department of Motor Vehicles…. Instinctively, she found the accelerator. Daringly, she took the curb. At that speed, she seemed to lift right off the highway and cut the corner in the air. Then she was soaring above the overpass, swooping low over the dark roofs of the suburbs … in her mind—flying, riding the night sky.” (81)
The end of “The Planet Earth” finds Denise and Barbara back together again, best friends as they had been when they left Hope together so many years ago. As they sit sipping hot coffee at the kitchen table, reminiscing well into the night, Adderson challenges the strictures of time. She challenges its slow progress, its relentless movement forward. For both Adderson’s protagonists have gone back, have started again. They changed the roles that were forced upon them: “one reasonably brainy, the other with good legs.” She leaves us with a brainy women happy to be a housewife and a woman with good legs eager for financial independence. In so doing, Adderson challenges not only what we expect from women, but also what we expect from freedom.
Following the Civil Rights Movement, there is no doubt that day-to-day life changed for the women of North America. But when women left traditional roles behind, what future lay in store for them? Jessica Grant and Caroline Adderson look into the lives of modern women in their respective short story collections. Both challenge traditional ideas of femininity and propose prototypes for the women of today. Grant paints her protagonists as unapologetically themselves, unfettered by the niceties of femininity: “This is how I am,” one of her protagonists says. “Either I ask what I want to ask, and answer how I want to answer, or say nothing at all. Either I’m out here with you or I’m not” (Grant 78). Adderson too depicts the women of “The Planet Earth” as unfettered by expectation. Her protagonists surprise us by rejecting the roles their initial roles and pursuing independence and happiness, whatever odd places the voyage may take them. Although Making Light and Bad Imaginings can be unsettling at times, Grant and Adderson’s blunt prose and shrewd wit leaves readers wondering how is it that bad can feel so good.
Adderson, Caroline. Bad Imaginings. Erin, Ontario: The Porcupine’s Quill, 1993.
Grant, Jessica. Making Light of Tragedy. Erin, Ontario. The Porcupine’s Quill, 2004.