Years ago my mom inadvertently tore the doors off my little red wagon when she said, "Y'know, I just don't really like women writers. They just don't seem to have the same - I don't know - weight. They just don't hold my interest like men writers." I had a freshly minted Literature degree, and the topic of the day was that women writers weren't honored, respected, and taught enough. Luckily, I had largely missed the conversion of English Lit departments from teachers of the classics to purveyors of warmed-over Marxism, Identity Politics, Queer Theory, and (sigh) the evil stepmother (stepchild?) of them all: Postmodernism. Yeah, a couple profs. had brought it up in a "I'm-required-to-mention-this" sort of way, but after they trotted it out they waived it away and got down to real teaching again (with one tragic exception, see below*). Still, even before it became the topic du jour, I had wondered why there (seemingly) weren't more Mary Shelleys, Jane Austens, Bronte sisters, fabulous one-offs like the glorious and timeless To Kill a Mockingbird and (even though I loathed it at the time, I've come to really like it) Wuthering Heights.
This situation was exacerbated by the very thing that brought it to the fore in everyone's mind (meaning the minds of Lit weenies, like myownself): Identity Politics and Postmodern "thinking" (I just can't keep the scare quote off of that one). With most humble apologies, I submit the fact that The Color Purple and Beloved just don't speak to the larger experience, nor do they offer much of an insight into the human condition; they are too bent and narcissistically self-absorbed. They are undoubtedly great genre literature (read "second-tier"), but they just aren't universal or timeless enough. Keep in mind I would put Joyce's Ulysses into this "second-tier" category. Though, I would not include Ralph Ellison's masterpiece The Invisible Man in this genre dismissal; it is truly a work that will speak to the ages and belongs in the major cannon; however, it is written by a man, and so doesn't count towards my point here. My point being that there just didn't seem to be as many towering literary achievements by women at the time. My mom had managed, without the benefit of a Lit degree, to put her finger directly on the possible reason why.
Since that moment, I launched a stealth mission to find really great novels written by women ("stealth" because to even voice the issue in some Lit circles is to call down the harpies on oneself). I'm happy to report my efforts have been rewarded in spades. For a while, I was only able to offer up (weakly) Anne Rice, whom I think is a great stylist, and two of her vampire novels ("Interview" and "Lestat") will remain classics to an extent, but probably "second-tier" as I opine above. But now, there are too many great works to keep up with. Happy day!
I have praised Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones elsewhere and before, so I'll let that suffice as an echo of the raves and respect I have for that novel. It will join the ranks of upper-echelon classics. It will.
The most recent book of that quality is Lolly Winston's Good Grief. Writing a humorous novel is something most are simply not able to do. Some can get a few laughs, some can tell a good story, but usually one is sacrificed in the service of the other. On top of that, writing a humorous story about the first year of grieving from the loss of a spouse expands the effort from a mere high-wire act to the performing the same in the nude, during a monsoon. Humor laced with pathos is often the most moving of all the variants of fiction, but only if it's done right. Having my own recent experience with extreme grief made me cautious about placing myself in the hands of someone who might use it for cheap laughs and/or mishandle it so badly that it would nose dive into the massively offensive, never to recover. (I feared something on the level of horrific miscalculation like John Hughes' Baby's Day Out, where evidently no one on the production had any inkling that seeing a real live baby in constant peril would be less than entertaining to most people - even if it was obvious it had been achieved with special effects.) Well, as my lead-up makes clear, Lolly Winston succeeds magnificently at pulling off this feat of comic tragedy.
This is a laugh-out-loud book, even when the events described are just heart breaking. At one point, our heroine, Sophie, goes to work in her bathrobe, out of her mind from grief. Were this episode penned by a ham-fisted writer, it could have been an embarrassing, harrowing thing to read. But, Winston, narrating through Sophie's perspective actually transmutes this depth of sorrow into comedy gold. When Sophie lays her head down on her desk from sheer overload, we are smiling, not crying or casting the book across the room because some clod tried to touch our heart without our permission.
Winston gets the tone and the feel of grief just right, too. I don't want to know what grief she went through, but she has obviously been on that particular voyage to write about it so realistically. But don't let that keep you from reading the book. In the same way that the movie Forrest Gump manages the topic of his retardation so that you don't ever really feel sorry for him, Good Grief grants Sophie the respect and humanity where you don't have to experience the grief for yourself to follow Sophie on her hilarious voyage.
Oh, and don't wait for the inevitable movie version. This is one of those books that simply will not be the same on the screen. Watching someone in pain simply will not be the same as wobbling along in her very shoes, chuckling all the way at her wondrous undertow of humor and love.
* I got to witness, personal and close-up, the implosion of a very gifted professor, once Identity Politics got ahold of her. She was not only a gifted Shakespeare prof., she was a gifted instructor, period. And she had that quality that most who excel at teachers have, she learned constantly. I met her as a fellow student in a couple of science classes, and I didn't know she was one of our profs. Imagine my surprise when I walked into my first English Lit. Shakespeare class, and she was the prof. Wow. Anyway, that first class, the tragedies, was nothing short of a revelation, of course due to the subject, but partially because of her method of communicating her knowledge. After that, I couldn't wait for the comedies course. Well, about that time she began encountering Identity Politics and Gender Feminism (I'm using Christina Hoff Sommers' definition, which boils down to those feminists who think masculinity itself is an inherent flaw, if not evil incarnate), plus we had a coven in the front row who egged her on, so over a third of the class became an ongoing hen party on how sexist Shakespeare was, for crying out loud. (It may be fun to laugh about how silly 70s or 80s fashions look now, but to get indignant and spend hours gassing on about "why didn't they know better?" just exposes one as an idiot.) She went from a charming, easygoing person to a bitter shrew in the course of one semester. It was tragic to watch. I never took the histories because of that; I just didn't have the heart.