Women’s World: Sex, Parenting and Self-Preservation
New Releases from Laura Lippman and Susan Wittig-Albert
In the year of the #MeToo movement, it is important to contextualize the threat and reality of sexual harassments and sexual discriminations within the larger categories of sex and gender oppression—namely economic.
Lippman’s Sunburn (NY: William Morrow, 2018) and Wittig-Albert’s Queen Anne’s Lace (NY: Berkley, 2018) draw the outlines of the issues boldly and thickly and then they fill them in—coloring brightly and shading subtly in turn—making sure that readers cannot ignore them. At the same time that they educate and elucidate, however, both texts deliver beautifully crafted and exciting stories.
Lippman may be the master of noir fiction. Sunburn sears the reader indelibly with the story of a beautiful young girl, seduced and then abused—repeatedly, terribly abused—and then threatened with not only her own but also her disabled child’s murder. That is the back-story revealed slowly in intermittent flashbacks and reminiscences.
In the present (the mid-nineties), the same girl, now a grown woman, is trying to put her life back into some sort of order, only to find her past, both her immediate past and her distant past, not haunting but rather actively stalking her. Throughout the book, Polly/Pauline is constantly reacting to the judgments of others. Men and women attempt to define, describe, and proscribe her; they ponder the following questions. Does Polly’s re-claiming her life require leaving her child or children behind? Are her actions predictable or unexpected? Is her behavior typical or unnatural?
Polly/Pauline’s physical attractiveness is striking. One person finds her scent “like June itself, on its best day, warm and wild and promising”(82). As he tries to figure her out, another individual, a suitor, decides that others are incorrect; that Polly’s strangeness is due to the fact that she is “almost too natural” (87). He compares Polly to a “weasel-like animal” he saw in Botswana that was “pushing and herding most of her children” to cross the road, but who remained “indifferent to the smallest one, resigned to its slim odds for survival” (87).
It is Polly’s own estimation of herself amidst all of these suppositions and charges that is the most interesting. The teenage wife and victim has grown into a woman who assesses herself clearly and coolly, “most women aren’t her. It’s not her looks or her body” (102). As she completes her self-assessment, Polly spares no time on legal or moral recriminations.
It’s how she is on the inside that makes her different from other women. She fixes her gaze on the goal and never loses sight of it.
The goal is never a man. Never. Men are the stones she jumps to, one after another, toward the goal. She’s getting closer. Thank God she’s patient. She never figured this to take so long, but you can’t plan for every contingency (102).
While the text spins a story as convoluted and frightening—as visual and visceral--as Kathleen Turner’s Body Heat, it also forces the reader to reflect not only on society’s stereotypes of women and mothers but also on that same society’s justice system—predicated and constructed on such stereotypes--and that system’s dual-edged sword: its oft-times flawed protection and prosecution of women and mothers.
Sunburn spans the time-period of one summer and fall. It is as easy a read as a beach novel, but as its epilogue (from June 2017) emphasizes, the issues it explores will linger long after a summer’s sunburn or the sunburn season.
This reviewer (who is a constant supporter of China and a big fan of the China Bayles series) cannot recall an instance in which China has had a precognitive vision or aura similar to those of her friend and business partner Ruby. One of the best books in the China Bayles’ series to highlight Ruby’s gift is Widow’s Tears. In Queen Anne’s Lace, China has a psychic experience similar to Ruby’s in that earlier text. Lights flicker, the temperature changes, and both fragrances and sounds cue the former prosecutor into other awareness. It is no wonder then that China tries to solve the mystery by putting herself on the witness stand in her mind’s eye and constantly chastises herself for making irrational (but not incorrect) assumptions (163, 165, 177, 219, 255, 298, 382-83).
This trope of self-interrogation is one of the most light-hearted in the story. China is constantly saying to herself, “facts not in evidence,” which she—in her defense—points out is “the very essence of ghosthood. . . .” (163).
A second light-hearted story-line is China and Caitlin’s bathing of the chickens, “dirty birds by nature,” (71) before the county fair (71-73) and the recounting of those chickens’ prizes at the fair (392-93).
Despite the airy texture of both the flower/herb that anchors this tale and of the textile art, Queen Anne’s Lace is at heart a dark tale woven from two centuries of women’s injury, suffering, and recovery.
Present-day Lori, a new tenant in China’s shops, has lost her entire adoptive family and has faced a catastrophic personal illness. On her road to recovery, she wants to find her birth family and learn her origins.
Nineteenth century Annie Laurie Duncan similarly loses her husband and her unborn child in one year and must struggle to put her life back together at a time when women had few economic or romantic options. She turns her hobby, lace-making, into a career--a lucrative one at that; and she finds another love-relationship, albeit an illicit one, when she falls for her deceased husband’s (married) best friend.
It is against this nineteenth century canvas that Wittig-Albert gives one of the best fictional explorations this reviewer has seen of women’s herbal applications throughout their fertility cycle: menstruation, abortifacient, and pregnancy care.
Always the careful researcher, Wittig-Albert cites four sources in her appendix, but the reader need not worry that the wealth of information impedes the plot or encumbers the aesthetics of the text. Dosing a spoonful at a time, Wittig-Albert makes the learning of herbal knowledge easy.
Both books have happy endings. Surprisingly. That is not to say that bad things do not happen within the pages of the texts and that some people—both the bad and the not-so-bad—are irreparably hurt, but the endings seem both justified and satisfactory.
For all the talk about women and women’s rights this year, too much emphasis in the creative world is still placed on examples of the extreme—on women warriors or pampered princesses. Each of these books focuses on the real women caught in the middle, caught in real life, struggling to make do and savoring both the success of their efforts and the sometimes small, but always significant moments of life’s sweetness.
Both Sunburn and Queen Anne’s Lace are exciting and compelling examples of their genres—noir and mystery fiction--but each is also a truly and uniquely woman’s tale and as such a testament to women’s resolve and resilience.
Reviewed by M. L. Byrd
M. L. Byrd, founding editor of the NOLA DIASPORA, knows what it means to miss New Orleans. She is currently teaching at Virginia State University.