Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Book Reviews: Little Bee and She's Come Undone

I have a notion that it's sort of hard for me to connect to female characters written by men. While I truly value authentic female voices represented in literature, I'm coming to realize that the more that I think about judging an author based on their gender identity, the more I am treading into assholishness. I mean, do I want more womens' books published? Yes. Do I think that women can most adequately tell women's stories? Yes. But does this mean I should write off male authors? Certainly not.

Luckily to challenge my preconceived notions, I recently had the pleasure of reading two great books by male authors that I'd like to recommend. They are Little Bee by Chris Cleave and She's Come Undone by Wally Lamb. Spoilers to follow.

She's Come Undone
I actually read Wally Lamb's She Come Undone a while ago, but it didn't occur for me to review it until I decided to cover Little Bee and make this an event of male writing from the female perspective.

Summary from Amazon:
Meet Dolores Price. She's 13, wise-mouthed but wounded, having bid her childhood goodbye. Beached like a whale in front of her bedroom TV, she spends the next few years nourishing herself with the Mallomars, potato chips, and Pepsi her anxious mother supplies. When she finally rolls into young womanhood at 257 pounds, Dolores is no stronger and life is no kinder. But this time she's determined to rise to the occasion and give herself one more chance before really going belly-up.

Feminist themes:
Lamb covers a lot of extremely complex issues including rape suvivorship, homosexuality, homophobic bullying, disordered eating, fat oppression/thin privilege, suicide attempts, intimate partner violence, abortion, and mental illness. And through his main character Dolores, he creates a story which is very female driven. Not only does she struggle with and overcome the issues mentioned above, but her relationships with her female family members (specifically her mother and grandmother) are raw, real, fascinating, and central to the story. Many of the lessons that Dolores must learn are very feminist too. For example, she learns the consequences of losing ones sense of self in a romantic relationship. And despite the scars of the significant trauma she carries for life, Dolores also learns how to have positive, safe interactions with others and feel fulfilled, happy, and secure.

What I didn't like:
Dolores' struggle for a majority of the book is her weight. Lamb seems to understand what it is like to operate in the world as a fat person and the oppression of fat phobia. However, in the end, when Dolores takes control of her life she loses the weight. I couldn't help but be rooting for an ending where it didn't feel like she had to conform to a stereotypical beauty ideal to be happy. The way that Lamb tells the story is much more nuanced than just "Dolores is thin and therefore happy." She doesn't lose the weight and find immediate happiness, but it does feel like losing the weight was a significant plot point that we're supposed to see as a victory. I know that some people find happiness in changing their bodies, but I'll admit I was saddened by this part. It just played into the stereotype of fat people as inherently damaged or incomplete and in need of change. While Dolores was damaged and needed change, her fatness wasn't the cause of that, and it's hard to parse it apart in Lamb's resolution.

Overall thoughts:
I definitely liked the book and it's worth a read. I might have rooted for Dolores to make different decisions than she made, but I couldn't put the book down. Dolores isn't always the most lovable, easy to connect with character, but you'll end up pulling for her, crying with her, and watching her grow.

Little Bee
I had heard great things about this book and how it brings to light the inhuman treatment of refugees. What I didn't realize is just how much else it could contain. I will say, it's a little hard for me to write a ton about the plot, because it is one where if you know too much, the story could really be spoiled.

From the Good Reads summary: "Two women collide lives on a Nigeria beach. One must make a terrible choice. Two years later, they meet again and the story starts ..."

The story is told through the two women, Little Bee and Sarah, with each chapter alternating between their voices.

Feminist themes: 
Little Bee deals with topics as heavy as that of She's Come Undone. Cleave explores racism, rape suvivorship, genocide survivorship, marital strife, suicide, depression, murder, motherhood, sisterhood, and self sacrifice. Through the course of the story and the reflection on that beach in Nigeria two years ago, we begin to understand Sarah and Little Bee's complicated, beautiful, and evolving bond. Cleave takes the opportunity to highlight just how horribly we in the west treat refugees while simultaneously looking down our noses at the countries they have fled, thinking ourselves much more civilized and human.

What I didn't like: 
I feel like Cleave uses Little Bee to accurately portray what it's like to navigate our rape culture on a day to day basis--especially for rape survivors. Little Bee is always imagining "the men" coming to get her, being attacked by men, and taking her own life preemptively. However, because Little Bee's history is one of extreme trauma and certainly some level of PTSD, her perspective is particularly colored by that experience. Sarah on the other hand, seems almost oblivious to those things. But I feel like most women at least operate with some level of fear of rape (unfortunately). I think Cleave's unintended messaging is that England is inherently free from this same fear for women. Basically, it feels like there is a false dichotomy constructed on the safeness of women in the west vs. elsewhere. I mean, I know that there are certain regions of the world which are more dangerous than others, but Sarah's thoughts and actions felt a bit unnecessarily naive to me, which makes me wonder if that's a bit of Cleave's male privilege showing. He can imagine how a woman of the developing world fears men, but he writes Sarah's primary concerns as fashion and her affair (prior to meeting Little Bee.) I do wonder if this stark contrast was designed to highlight how the women overcome such differences to bond, but it just feels a bit off to me either way.

Overall thoughts:
I feel like Little Bee really opened my eyes to the treatment of refugees and feeling nation-less. It was a little bit of a slow start for me, but once Cleave hits his stride, its beautiful back-and-forth narrative pulls you in and pushes you to keep reading. 

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