Category Archives: Strong Female Main Characters

Surreal Comedy of Manners: Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles

cover image of Two Serious LadiesImagine two women of independent means – one unmarried, one married – going through the motions, more or less, of belonging to conventional (bourgeois) society and doing what’s expected of them, until suddenly they stop. The surrealness of Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles (first published in 1943) comes from other people’s continuing to interact with them as if they were the same ladies they were before – a little eccentric, maybe, but basically normal upper-class ladies. Their old friends and the strange new acquaintances they make – separately, and independently of each other – are puzzled and intrigued  by them, but don’t seem able to acknowledge the changes they are going through in the process of trying to become their true selves.

It may be more accurate to say that Miss Goering and Mrs. Copperfield (as they are called throughout the book) are on a quest to behave – and be – the women they actually already are by ceasing to behave like the ladies that most of society (except for a few other odd ducks) is expecting them to be (and insists on seeing them as).

As the book opens, Miss Goering is already considered odd, and weirdly religious; she has few friends other than Mrs. Copperfield, but she does like to get invited to parties and be out among people. She and Mrs. Copperfield talk together at a party given by their mutual friend Anna, and that’s the last they see of each other until the very end of the short book.

Miss Goering is compelled to leave the party early with Arnold, whom she has just met, because he has asked her to come to his home:

“After leaving Anna’s party, Arnold walked awhile with Miss Goering and then hailed a cab. The road to his home led through many dark and deserted streets. Miss Goering was so nervous and hysterical about this that Arnold was alarmed.
‘I always think,’ said Miss Goering, ‘that the driver is only waiting for the passengers to become absorbed in conversation in order to shoot down some street, to an inaccessible and lonely place where he will either torture or murder them. I am certain that most people feel the same way about it that I do, but they have the good taste not to mention it.'”

Mrs. Copperfield, on the other hand, seems conventional and timid at first, not as neurotic and odd as Miss Goering, and doesn’t seem to stand out as being different, right at first. At Anna’s party, she tries to tell Miss Goering how extremely nervous she is about an upcoming trip to the tropics with her husband and then goes off to cry in a room by herself for a while.

We learn later that Miss Goering gives Mrs. Copperfield a gift before the Panama. trip. This gift of a manicure set from Miss Goering seems imbued with some special meaning, for Panama is where Mrs. Copperfield begins to act as she pleases instead of as she is expected to. This passage describes Mrs. Copperfield’s thoughts on her first worried night in the low-rent district of Panama City, before she embraces this new, loud, and colorful world:

“Mrs. Copperfield’s sole object in life was to be happy, although people who had observed her behavior over a period of years would have been surprised to discover that this was all.
She rose from her bed and pulled Miss Goering’s present, a manicuring set, from her grip. “Memory,” she whispered. “Memory of the things I have loved since I was a child. My husband is a man without memory.” She felt intense pain at the thought of this man whom she liked above all other people, this man for whom each thing he had not yet known was a joy. For her, all that which was not already an old dream was an outrage. She got back on her bed and fell sound asleep.”

I marked a lot of passages throughout the book, but since I can’t quote them all here, I will sum up by saying that the characters in the book are strange and puzzling, for the most part, and their behavior seems to exist in a different moral universe. Censure and disapproval are mentioned from random onlookers, but there is none forthcoming from the author, who seems to be observing what everyone does and commenting on it, without forming judgments.

The edition I read has an introduction by Claire Messud which says that the author was the wife of Paul Bowles who started out as a composer before turning to writing and achieving greater success as a writer than she did. This was a marriage of friendship, for both were gay, as (it is strongly implied) the Copperfields were in Two Serious Ladies, which was the author’s only published novel. An alcoholic, the author suffered a stroke at age 40 that left her unable to write and she died in her 50s.

I read Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles for a January Read-Along with Dolce Bellezza and other book bloggers. Visit Dolce Bellezza’s discussion post for more about Two Serious Ladies.

Given the introduction from Claire Messud, Two Serious Ladies might appeal to readers of The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, and also any readers who want to become familiar with female writers from a previous generation, when women were overlooked by literary critics even more than they are today.

Weekend Read: The Girl with a Clock for a Heart by Peter Swanson (No Spoilers)

cover imageWith its many references to the Boston area, The Girl with a Clock for a Heart by Peter Swanson has been on my TBR* list since it came out last February, but once I finally opened it and read the beginning, I was hooked. I whipped through almost all of it in a single sitting on Saturday.

The Girl with a Clock for a Heart is a true literary thriller with references to novels and other literature here and there, and a main character, George Foss, who works in the accounting department of a struggling Boston literary magazine. The book is about the consequences of George’s running into the girl he fell head over heels in love with twenty years earlier during their first semester as freshmen at Mather College, whom he hadn’t seen or heard from since.

Author Peter Swanson is a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock movies. This comes through especially in the twisty pacing of the book and in several scenes during which I may have literally held my breath while reading. Boston-area readers will enjoy mentions of well-known local spots, including the Kowloon on Route 1 in Saugus, and trying to guess what actual locations the fictional locations might be (New Essex – That would probably be Essex, a seaside town north of Boston? And Mather, the New England liberal arts college George Foss attended – the author’s own alma mater, Trinity College in Connecticut?), but the characters and their motives are more interesting than the setting, so readers unfamiliar with the area won’t miss out on anything important to the story.

Although the meaning of the hard-to-remember title gets explained eventually, I assume The Girl with a Clock for a Heart is also a reference to the literary thriller The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo – another book billed as a stylish literary thriller. (The Girl with a Clock for a Heart has been optioned for film; I’ll be curious to see if a movie is given a different, easier-to-remember title.) As everyone knows, The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo was the first in a trilogy. I thought the same might be true here, but Peter Swanson denies that a sequel is in the works in this interview at Coot’s Reviews.

Even with a murder, police detectives, and a private investigator, also a blurb from Dennis Lehane on the cover and elements of noir, I wouldn’t suggest this to a reader looking for realistic crime fiction, but to a literary fiction reader who maybe also likes Patricia Highsmith or Dennis Lehane. You do have to be willing to suspend disbelief a few times and go along for the “sexy, electric thrill ride,” as Dennis Lehane describes the book.

Watch out for spoilers if you read other reviews. Better just get the book yourself, and read it quick!

The Girl with a Clock for a Heart
Swanson, Peter
William Morrow
Feb. 2, 2014
304 pp.

*To Be Read

Women’s National Book Association Panel: Local Authors at Your Book Group @WNBABoston @WNBA_National #ArmchairBEA

Armchair BEA badgeDid you know that there is a women’s section of the National Book Association?

I didn’t, but I learned at a session of this month’s Massachusetts Library Association Annual Conference that the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) was formed (in Boston?) in 1917 because, at the time, women weren’t allowed to join the National Book Association. The Women’s National Book Association sponsors National Reading Group Month each October and publishes “Great Group Reads,” an annotated list of titles suggested for book groups.

On this second day of Armchair BEA, imagine yourself filing into one of the Javits Center’s many conference rooms to listen to a panel discussion of authors talk about the experiences they have had visiting book groups, virtually or in person. Have you ever thought about inviting the author to your book club discussion to get the inside scoop or a unique insight? These four authors who participated in a panel discussion at the Massachusetts Library Association conference this month, all said they would love to be invited!

photo of author panel
L to R: Authors Phoebe Baker Hyde, Nancy Rubin Stuart, JoeAnn Hart, and Henriette Lazaridis Power.

From left to right at the table in the front of the room:

Phoebe Baker Hyde (The Beauty Experiment: How I Skipped Lipstick, Ditched Fashion, Faced the World Without Concealer, and Learned to Love the Real Me)

Nancy Rubin Stuart (Defiant Brides: The Untold Stories of Two Revolutionary-Era Women and the Radical Men They Married)

JoeAnn Hart (Float)

and Henriette Lazaridis Power (The Clover House), the panel moderator.


The Beauty Experiment: How I Skipped Lipstick, Ditched Fashion, Faced the World Without Concealer, and Learned to Love the Real Me by Phoebe Baker Hyde is a stunt memoir about a year in which the author, a young mother at the time, adopted her husband’s daily “beauty” regimen as her own, and skipped the time-consuming morning routine of doing her hair and make-up. (And, look! With all the time she saved, she was able to get an entire book written!) Her book has generated some heated discussions among readers, reported the author (who was a cultural anthropology major in college). She said that men who can get past the lipstick on the cover also find her book interesting, as it raises questions about self-esteem that are universal. Phoebe also presents a wellness/writing workshop called “Making Peace with the Inner Voice,” that ties in with her book. Read a Boston Globe article about Phoebe Baker Hyde here.

“The tradition of stunt nonfiction begins with Thoreau.” — Phoebe Baker Hyde

Defiant Brides, about the lives of two women who married political radicals – one becoming a patriot, and the other, a spy – in the time of the American Revolution, is Nancy Rubin Stuart’s most recent book. She has also had several other works of nonfiction published, mostly histories or biographies related to women. Defiant Brides sounds like a promising choice for groups that read nonfiction selections, at least occasionally. Nancy runs the Cape Cod Writers Center.

“Librarians, we love you.” — Nancy Rubin Stuart

Float by JoeAnn Hart, which the author calls “eco-fiction,” sounds like a novel that would spur a lot of discussion, especially in book groups that like to tackle books about current issues. Here’s the description from the author’s Web site: “Float is a wry tale of financial desperation, conceptual art, insanity, infertility, seagulls, marital crisis, jellyfish, organized crime, and the plight of a plastic-filled ocean. JoeAnn Hart’s novel takes a smart, satirical look at family, the environment, and life in a hardscrabble seaside town in Maine.” JoeAnn lives in Gloucester, Mass., and her first novel was Addled, published by Little, Brown in 2007.

The Clover House by Greek-American author Henriette Lazereter Powell of Weston, Mass. has a strong, but flawed, female main character, Callie Brown, who may be found by some readers to be “unlikeable,” the author says, referring to author Claire Messud’s famous rant about not needing to be friends with characters in books. Callie, a first-generation Greek-American, “stumbles on a family secret from the second World War.” Henriette always brings “props” with her to book groups, usually items emblematic of the Patras Carnivale, such as the black, floor-length domino robe and mask a woman would wear to the anything-goes, opening night ball.

 All four authors are happy to visit local book groups or visit groups anywhere via Skype. They are all members of the Boston chapter of the Women’s National Book Association, but the WNBA is nationwide, with chapters in the following cities:

This post is linked up to Armchair BEA for Tuesday. Visit Armchair BEA for posts from over 100 other bloggers on one or both of today’s topics:

Author Interaction 
Let’s talk interacting with authors IRL (in real life) or online. This is your opportunity to talk about your favorite author readings that you have attended. Or, you can feature your favorite author fan moment (i.e., an author sent you a tweet or commented on your blog). Maybe you even want to share how your interactions have changed since becoming a blogger or share your own tips that you have learned along the way when interacting with authors as a blogger. 

More Than Just Words 
There are so many mediums that feature more than just words and enhance a story in a multitude of ways. Examples may include graphic novels and comics, audiobooks, or even multimedia novels. On this day, we will be talking about those books and formats that move beyond just the words and use other ways to experience a story. Which books stand out to you in these different formats?