In the name of Friendship- a review

My book club encourages me to read books which I would not normally choose. This is a good thing in itself because it broadens my experiences. By nature, I am a classicist and enjoy Victorian and Edwardian literature simply because it has style and excellent characterisation. And because I am a literary snob.

Most modern literature fails to inspire me, but occasionally, I am glad that I had to read it. I did enjoy “Easter Island” because it was informative. “We need to talk about Kevin” was also worth reading because of its subject matter, but I am usually astounded by the number of books that are being published which are pretty boring, badly written and of no interest to an adult reader. I have to admit that I am sad about being unable to tolerate escapist literature. Why did I have to grow up and face reality?

Chick lit is the pits and Bridget Jones was no better than the romance comics I used to read as a young girl. I guess we all have to go through that idiotic stage and I was not immune to its escapist themes. After all, it’s nice to dream.

But one day, reality intrudes and bites you harshly. You can no longer tolerate the bullshit because you know better. Oh dear…that is a rude awakening and you wish that the dream could have lasted a little longer.

On reading “In the name of Friendship” one has the impression that Marilyn French, who wrote “The Women’s Room” thirty years ago, never had any illusions about romance and life in general. She seems to be a very angry woman who declared war on the male sex. At the time her feminist novel was regarded as the conscience-raising spark which jettisoned women out of the kitchen and into protest marches for equal rights for women.

Women fought hard and like all revolutions they sometimes went too far. But revolutions are, by their very nature, far from moderate and causes seem to snowball out of control. Nevertheless, much was achieved over the past thirty years, so much so that young women of today often wonder why the feminists burned their bras in protest. The fact that they wonder this is testament that the feminist movement was successful. These young women can now take for granted what the feminists struggled to achieve.

“The Women’s Room” was the only novel by Marilyn French that I ever read. However, my book club selected “In the Name of Friendship” written by French in 2005 and it was surprising to discover that French is still obsessed with the same themes. Men don’t understand women. They want to put women down. Women don’t need men to be happy and in fact they would be better off in a world full of women.

French constructed a novel in which most of the men are either hostile to women, patronising, or pretty useless as companions. The four women, on the other hand, are wonderful friends to one another. No petty bickering of the sort I witnessed in the many staffrooms of high-schools in which I taught. No bitchiness, no jealousy, just warm support for one another through all the angst of having to deal with the “inferior” sex with whom they share their frustrated lives.

The four friends are of disparate ages, the eldest, 76 and the youngest, thirty-something. In a way, they are more like members of a family of older aunts and younger nieces. Because of the difference in age there is very little competition between the women since their interests don’t clash. But the advantage of having such a range in ages is it affords the author with opportunities for comparing the position of women today with that of their sisters during the sixties.

Most of the plot deals with incidents which portray the progress made by modern women. There is a lesbian couple with a daughter and that is ultimate freedom, according to French. There is a middle-aged woman who asserts herself and rebels against her husband’s arrogance. There is the young woman who is fed up with the male chauvinism of her artist husband and who also asserts herself. The novel is very long but not intellectually demanding. Its main appeal is as a launching pad for discussion. No man could enjoy this novel.

By now you can see that French is reiterating the same theme that inspired “The Women’s Room.” In other words, “I am woman. Hear me roar!” If there is one optimistic note in this novel, it’s that the women discover an outlet from their frustrated lives by becoming creative. One of them becomes a successful composer, another, an artist and another, a writer. That makes three out of four who find expression in art. This outlet compensates for what is lacking in their personal relationships.

Of course, the same could be said for the men who spend most of their lives being productive rather than creative. In fact, only one of them is an artist and he doesn’t seem to be satisfied with his lot either. But French is not concerned about the men who are sadly regarded as the enemy. This is not surprising in feminist literature which by its very nature highlights the female condition.

Whilst Western nations have changed in their attitude to women’s rights, French’s message should be heard by women in the Third World and in parts of the Middle East. They are the ones who are suffering from gender discrimination and in my opinion, those nations will be held back as long as they treat their women as second-class citizens.

Why, only this week, I read that in Saudi Arabia some women are taking a stand and demanding that they be allowed to drive a car. Apparently, the problem with being allowed to drive is that women will be tempted to become independent —-ouch!!!

They may start wanting to go out on their own and who knows what catastrophes that will bring? They will become attractive to men other then their husbands. Poor Saudi Men! so insecure…

What really got my goat was that a ‘progressive’ Saudi male is now advocating that women over the age of 35 or 40 be permitted to drive a car. What he is suggesting here, is that women over the age of thirty are no longer a temptation. So they are no longer “uncovered meat” as the unlamented ex-mufti of Australia would say. This time the Saudis have really gone too far. How dare they be ageist as well as sexist?

If you want to pepper your anger at gender discrimination, read French’s novel. It is nostalgic and quite interesting. But if you are no longer interested in women’s issues because they are an old tale, then you should be very happy that the battle was fought for your rights. Just be grateful that you have the keys to the car LOL

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