Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Review of I Dont Know How She Does It, by Allison Pearson

Trouble!  Somewhere!
Rundeep is super. Afflicted with an online writing addiction as bad as my own (but more diverse, incisive, and well-regarded), she seems to balance this with a successful and happy marriage, a high-visibility career, and, evidently, time to be a great parent as well. Either she's got it totally figured out (in which case she's my hero) or else she's brilliantly faking it (in which case she's my hero). Rundeep is hard to pin down as a book choice because she seems to have a smart angle on everything. So what could I do but find some fictional character that seems to manage it all? I don't know how she does it either, but I'd sure like to figure out something similar. I'm honored to include rundeep as one of the buds.


There's a certain prose style that's been working its way into the literature for the past 20 or 30 years, a certain brand of ironic hyperbole that compounds everyday observation with huge absurd metaphors, almost at the end of every sentence. Off the cuff, I'll guess that it started as soon as anyone saw fit to parody Raymond Chandler, but whatever the origin, it's worked itself into something of a standard form, identifiable a couple paragraphs in. I love it, and Allison Pearson wins big points for doing it well. She has a lot of fun with the verbal gymnastics, and the pace of the language is a good match for the frantic knot of the main character's mental state. Low on plot (but with an entertaining movie-script denoument), the book flies by as fast as Kate Reddy thinks. I'd have read it in a sitting if I'd had enough of a sitting.

I Don't Know How She Does It is told in the first person, in present tense, in roughly real time, a framing device that doesn't quite work. 8:17 AM: Am rushing to cab... Logistically, she can't possibly be dictating, but the book is too diary-like to be an internal monologue either. Even so, it's more than enough to get intimate with the Kate's internal thoughts. Her racing mind dwarfs the stimuli from her external life, and the contrast of her thoughts (stern at home, sweet and funny at work) to her actions (sweet at home and stern at work) are a great vehicle to reveal character. She's an easy woman to like, if only she'd calm down for ten minutes.

I'm not sure I identify with her though. I suppose I'm more like her husband--I've had a good upbringing that's robbed me of overambition--but I don't quite get that dude's dull entitlement either. (He's easy to write myself onto because Kate spends the novel ignoring him.) I had kids at the same chronological time as that fictional couple (though I am younger), and while in grad school, did some daddy-at-home time while my wife won bread. A man, especially a young one, was at best a novelty, but more often was beneath the notice of the local Muffia, and I really enjoyed Pearson's pokes at those overbearing ghouls. (Now my poor wife spends more time scratching her head over their bizarre commitments.) I couldn't get behind the noxious men who had a path paved to business success (if I were to encounter in the workplace the level of overt misogyny that Kate did, I'd be appalled), nor the women who were conflicted about their maternal instincts, even if I could (and still can) relate to the way that dual incomes run roughshod over family life.

The premise of this novel--a woman that tries to succeed as both a proper English mum (can I ever tell you how much English classisms bug me?) and a badass executive--is one that invites an exploration of gender roles, but none of the major or minor characters captured very well the complicated perspectives of the people even I know. Even with humor (and maybe especially with humor), this honesty is essential, and I think it's where Pearson lost the opportunity to write something powerful instead of something light and disposable. It would be difficult to resolve the setup without appearing to approve one side or other of Kate's dual drives, and when she starts extolling motherhood as a compulsion straight from the womb, you can hear the faint crackle of a message, and by the time she introduces and quickly martyrs the novel's only saint, it's screaming in your ear. The successful (balanced) women in the showcase are either wives, or else have assumed some bullshit girl-acceptable career. (To put it another way, I'd rather have any one of Kate's female friends managing my hypothetical funds than the douchebag men she worked with.) The men, the best and worst of them, are all overgrown boys that need a little mommying. She doesn't criticize the subtler chauvinism of Kate's "good" boss, nor that of her inappropriate romantic interest--they're just boys who have been failed by women. It's all so very comfortable with old traditions by the end, I found it disappointingly at odds with the way Pearson opened the story. For rundeep, I wish I came up with something that was balanced in substance as well.



Keifus said...

Just a little postscript here. My wife knows about the blog, but I don't think she's ever read it. More importantly, I don't think she understands the degree to which it's my social network these days. Her prescience scared the shit out of me a couple days ago, though. She asked what I was reading, and I blushed. "Who are you reading that for," she teased, "some online hottie?"

Her voice was light, but "yeah, but..." was exactly the wrong way to formulate an answer. Instead, I told her some of my thoughts about blogging in general, how I group my books by theme, mentioning the idea of how great it would be to talk to people with similar interests that I could speak nerd with. I felt (and feel) like a total politician, and I'm not proud. It's odd that the distance grew so fast, but Achilles is going to catch back up with the tortoise one of these days.

kol said...

Hmmm, In the last year I moved from a job that involved huge amounts of face to face interaction to working from a home office. So this online community definitely meets a need of sorts.
My husband, who is by nature quite solitary, is a somewhat bemused by the time I spend doing a blog or cruising the forums and other people's blogs.
Okay, it is sometimes a restful avoidance of my current work, but then he has his own ways of taking a break (but I have no desire to hit a heavy bag).
And I have put in a request for the book through the library (love that online feature).

twiffer said...

well, given that perse and i met out here in cyberspace, she knows and understands why i blog. not to mention who i'm talking with and what about. actually, it's an easy way for her to see what i'm thinking about during the day, if we're busy and can't connect for long on the phone. we also discuss what we've been reading out in the ether.

but that's us. we've got similar interests, so it's easy to talk about them on and offline. however, i don't think explaining your motivations should make you feel like a politician. it's just discussion. if you have differing interests, then you need an outlet. seems like she not only knows, but approves.

Keifus said...

kol: me too. I spend a lot of time at my desk at work (which I also like to avoid), and (even more relevantly) spend most of my weekend nights stuck home and bored: wife at work & kids in bed. Dual work schedule and little in common with the townies makes it tough to make friends where we live or hang with people after work.

twiff: Like a politician, I didn't answer the question that was asked (which would have affirmed her suspicions, even though writing "for" someone happened to be a pretty positive thing in this case). Maybe you're right though.

rundeep said...

Wow. I need to pay my publicist more. Or I need to be one. I can't tell you how touched I am by this choice, and how impressed by your reading.

The thing is, I truly feel like a fraud most of the time. My job involves managing literally insane people, and I don't always do it well. Add that I'm the only woman in a semi-executive position, and you get some weird complications.

I'm a really crappy housekeeper and I don't cook, which is probably why my husband and I have stayed together. (He's a great cook, and my joke is that he's spent the last 15 years getting me too fat for anyone else to screw). My kid is just naturally easy, and my major goal as a parent is to protect her just enough and otherwise stay out of the way of her growing up.

And as for writing, I think you a thousand times better than I. More substantive, a superb and close reader of a variety of things.

My husband knows about the Fray, but not the blog. Interesting, since I've never written anything he could be worried by, really.. Nor have you. It's just that we have a sense of our clandestine nature here -- writing to a small cadre of like-minded folk. I send him posts from the Fray sometime, so he can see what goes on. That's my way of compromising. As I said when Iso was going (was beginning, I should say) down the road we dare not travel, that I've fallen emotionally for the people in my computer. That's still true, whether I share or not.

Again, sincere thanks. (By the way, i don't think most men are superficial tools at all. Only my bosses.)


rundeep said...

Oh, and your artwork is most pleasing!

Keifus said...

Well, I'm really glad you liked it.

I feel like a fraud too (for starters, shouldn't I be working or something?). In a way, the act of writing (and don't sell yourself short) is trying to fake it well. Maybe that's the common demon for all of us. I'm not willing to give it up, even if y'all become (surpringly?) real sometimes. I think you and august have a good idea spreading around the occasional overview pieces. Maybe I'll have my publicist do it.

I will say this though: nobody dies wishing they did more housework. I feel a little differently about cooking, but I've actually got a good system in place for that one. Your parenting philosophy sounds remarkably sane as well. I don't think most people who have kids have even figured out the mission statement.

[I'm not a very good artist. The blessing of the computer is removing the copious eraser smudges. Although I'll say I got closer than I expected to capturing my mental image.]

Keifus said...

Oh, and if you're really nice, I'll even consider drawing you a second foot.