Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Women Against Chick Lit: Diane Meier and The Season of Second Chances

“Chick Lit,” writes Diane Meier in a Huffington Post article, “has been used to denigrate a large swath of novels about contemporary life that happen to be written by women.”  As you might guess from the article’s title, “Chick Lit?  Women’s Literature?  Why Not Just...Literature?”, Meier is frustrated—and more than frustrated, she raises the valid question of what it means for our society if books about contemporary domestic life must contain violence or other trauma in order to be taken seriously.

You know Chick Lit when you see it.  The cover is pastel or pink and more often than not contains a martini glass and/or cartoon sketch of a chic woman.  The problem arises when books not intended as “beach reading” end up being marketed in this way.  In other words, you think you’re seeing Chick Lit when you pick up the book, but those who honestly wanted the beach reading will be disappointed, and those who are after substance won’t want to be seen with it.  Such is the scenario Meier describes—and rightly so, as far as I know.

Meier’s first novel, The Season of Second Chances, was published last summer and she was dismayed when reviewers began using “Chick Lit” in relation to the book.  Because the subject of “Chick Lit” as a label necessarily interests me (what young female novelist whose yet-to-be-published books are decidedly domestic wouldn’t be leery?), I read The Season of Second Chances almost as soon as I finished reading Meier’s article.

The first sentence took a strong lead: “It takes a keen eye to tell a false start from a dead end.”  From there, the story of Joy, a first-person narrator, unfolds from the time she leaves her job at Columbia through the start of her new position and new life in Amherst, where she purchases a dilapidated Victorian house.  Although Joy is in her forties, the book is clearly a bildungsroman, a delayed coming of age as she learns, with the help of her handyman boyfriend and her busybody colleague, how to make connections outside her solipsistic shell.

On the whole, I enjoyed the book and found that it contained a few nuggets of interesting thought.  But as with most books, it also contained some choices that didn’t align with my aesthetics.  For one, I tend to write—and prefer—third-person narratives, and at times in Meier’s book I felt the first-person held the story back insofar as the account was too much told and too little felt.  The narrator is, at one point, set to marry a man she has dated for three months when she finds out he has been sleeping with a student of his.  The whole courtship and letdown is rife with emotional potential that gets undercut by the narration.  Granted, the point of the book is that the narrator must learn how to feel, but even the house she purchases, which she clearly feels something about, is relayed through straight up description and detailed accounting. 

One of Meier’s most well-drawn situations was also one with the most missed potential: the handyman boyfriend is in the clutches of his overbearing, controlling mother, despite that he is 35 years old.  The handyman character and the mother are both well-drawn, and Meier achieves an all-too-real scenario of a family member manipulating another through feelings of loyalty and guilt.  But where I was ready to see this conflict go down, especially since its outcome would directly affect the narrator, Meier brings us to the edge but deftly leads us away again.  No explosion between mother and son; no attempt to deal with the fallout.

But, in my reading, these places of missed potential were small points in the larger question of whether Meier is rightfully indignant about applying the Chick Lit label.  Although it may not be the next immortal literary classic, the book certainly does not deserve to be called Chick Lit, and Meier’s frustrations in her article prove valid.  After all, even if she ultimately moves away from the mother/son conflict, she is dealing with a time-honored theme in the vein of D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, or even farther back, Oedipus.  Also, those nuggets of interesting thought make it clear that there is intelligence behind the book and that reading it with an open and alert mind will make the reader expand his—yes, let’s go with ‘his’—thinking about how to balance career and life, community and individualism, the intellect and the body.   

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