Wednesday, January 14, 2009

For Women Only

If there is such a thing as a “woman’s book", then Our Kind by Kate Walbert is certainly it. By which I mean only that it will be of interest only to women readers – no reflection on the quality of the writing or the seriousness of the subject. The book is described as “a novel in stories.” What makes that different from a collection of short stories about the same characters is, I suppose, that these stories have to be read in order. Even then it is difficult to know always who is speaking and in what time frame. But that is getting too far ahead.

These are stories about a group of women who have known each other for decades, starting as newlyweds in the 1950s, through their days at the suburban country club, of child-bearing and child-rearing, of divorces, and now as they start to face the ends of their lives and reflect back. For any reader whose own experience overlaps to any degree in time and place with these women, there are so many “madeleine” moments in this book. The author is able to evoke in the reader a flood of emotion and recognition at just the mere mention or briefest description of a long-forgotten object or ritual of the period. I marvel that an author who, from the book jacket photo and description, is much too young to have experienced any of it, is nevertheless able to have captured the feeling so accurately for me.

One of my favorite scenes is in the story “Sick Chicks” when the women are visiting one of their own, Judy, in the hospice. “Before her diagnosis she had been our healthiest, eating six almonds each morning at breakfast, chewing Tums, cutting articles from the Harvard Women’s Health Watch…Now she smokes filterless menthols.” Do I see myself in that portrait? Absolutely, especially the part about the filterless menthols when “there are no more precautions to take.”

Though not without their regrets, these are strong feisty women. The divorced among them have a “come as you were” party wearing their wedding dresses. The proximity of the hostess’s swimming pool has a predictable – and hilarious – result.

Each has her own story to tell. And for all the time that they have known each other they are still learning each other’s stories - as are we. Perhaps our own friends, our kind, have stories yet to tell us, too.

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