4.5 stars. This book (how gorgeous is the cover?!) reads like a lucid dream — or nightmare, to put a finer point on it. The imagery is powerful, rich, redolent and the narrative obfuscated through repetitions and recursions, overlapping and interjecting voices and perspectives, and a lack of clear grammatical distinction between quotation and observation. Strung together, these techniques impart the feeling of a dreamwalk that is at once evocative of the main character’s “madness” and at the same time implicative of the broader social problems suggested in the novel: it is as though Rhys is saying, “if you think this story is crazy, you must think the broader world has gone full-on mad — just look at the racism, dislocation, chaos, misogyny teeming in this little post-colonial world we have here.” The book is burdened with the imagery of confinement and escape, of things gone–but not. (And nowhere is this underscored better than in the fluidity of transitions between who is speaking and thinking. We are constantly having to ask: “Wait, who is saying this?” There are many instances of border and boundary-crossing, of identity loss and restoration, even in the way we encounter the text.) We have broken patrilineal (and matrilineal!) relationships, miscegenation, the emancipation of Jamaican slaves, the lush and overgrown West Indies landscape, the appearance and disappearance of Christophine and Aunt Cora (who seem present and absent in the most jarring of cadences), the “first” and “second” deaths of Antoinette’s mother, locked doors, the promise of England and “the rest of the world,” the confines of the nunnery, the isolation of the attic chamber. In the novel, women are caught, trapped, repressed, and dismissed as “mad” — though the sources of their madness are more often than not tethered to the indiscretions and cruelties of the men they love or marry (for these are not always synonymous verbs, she reminds us, and are often colored by financial incentive): their fathering of illegitimate children, their abandonment, their emotional withdrawals. Perhaps saddest of all is the redundancy of the plotlines: Antoinette, like her mother, endures a medley of traumas, is dismissed as mad, and suffers complete dissolution in a fire. And the cycle will continue, we are led to believe, even if not via Antoinette’s own offspring. There will be others who endure similar fates, we know.
On second thought, this, perhaps, is the saddest — or most difficult to process — element of all: that many women are complicit in the confinement and maltreatment of other women, too. I so wanted to trust Christophine, and yet there is a point in her negotiations with Mr. Rochester where we are led to question whether she is motivated by money. Later, Ms. Poole reveals a distinct lack of sympathy in her cruel treatment of Antoinette while attic-bound. Even Cora seems in part responsible for the handing-off and binding and silencing of her niece. Ugh. It is a cruel, male-orchestrated world Rhys paints, but men are not the only ones to blame.
One small aspect of the book I could not stop thinking about was the naming and re-naming of women: Antoinette is nicknamed Bertha by Mr. Rochester seemingly “just because”; there is some debate over whether Christophine is actually Josephine; and there is a strange relationship between Antoinette and her surname: is she Colway or Mason? Rhys seemed to be tugging at the broader conventions of men bestowing their names upon women through marriage or birth, of men “claiming” and “renaming” parts of the world as colonists, of men asserting their power in myriad ways, not the least of which is through the control of language and nomenclature more generally. There is something defiant in the way Rhys writes in the face of these observations: she often forces the reader to puzzle over the identity of the character speaking rather than using names, i.e., “said Antoinette.” In many ways, it is Rhys’ expansive, boundary-blurring writing that commands we imagine a different, less restrictive mode of living.
Book Club Questions.
+Were there any redeeming relationships in this novel?
+What do you think is the source of Antoinette’s “madness” — and that of her mother?
+What did you make of the relationships between women in this novel? What about Antoinette’s relationship between her mother? (Think, too, of the fact that she has many “surrogate” mothers in the book: Christophine, the nuns, Cora.)
+What role did the emancipation of slavery in Jamaica/the West Indies play in this novel? I focused on gender in my earlier assessment, but there is a lot to unpack with regards to race and colonialism as well. Why did she set the book in this context?
+Why does Mr. Rochester marry Antoinette? What are his motivations? Do you think he was duped into marrying her?
+What did you make of the perspective shifts in the novel? Did you find either of the principle narrators unreliable?
+What was your impression of Christophine and her motivations? What role did “obeah” play in the novel?
+Why the title?
May Book Club Pick: Normal People by Sally Rooney.
I was mesmerized earlier this month by Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends. (Caveat, especially to my mother: there are many explicit scenes in the novel.) I was mainly impressed by its freshness in tone and its deep and abiding honesty about dynamics between friends. She spotlighted just how observant and sensitive we are when it comes to the slightest of tonal shifts, omissions of information, patterns of conversation and reaction. Her take on romance in the modern (technology-fueled!) age was novel, too. The book left me in a fog of self-reflection. All in, a remarkably original and non-derivative work. I’m eager to pick up her just-released second book and discuss with you all. I think Rooney’s is a powerful new voice to whom we need to attend.
Reading next: Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon after a trusted Magpie book club member urged its reading. I’m curious, too, about Verity, which has caused a legitimate internet sensation (but what is the FUSS?!), but have been discouraged from reading it while pregnant but many people who have already read the book. Hmmm…
+Everlane generously sent me this cropped sweatshirt and it’s the perfect lightweight transition-piece for cool morning farmer’s market runs. I’d wear mine with those wide-leg white cropped pants that are everywhere and a pair of Supergas.
+Speaking of daily rituals: let this be one of them.
+These side chairs are chic. Love the rattan and linen combo.
+This dress looks like it’s a Ganni — but costs less than $60.
+I love the simple, Audrey-Hepburn-esque elegance of this button-back linen shell. Perfect with white skinnies and espadrilles.
+These high-rise underwear get solid reviews for post c-section moms — surprisingly non-hideous.
+I told myself I wouldn’t buy any more maternity clothes (about a month out from due date now!), but my mom generously sent me a fresh pair of maternity pajamas and I have to say — they’ve absolutely made my month. I know I’ve written extensively on the topic of these jammies but, seriously, they are the only time of day I feel fully comfortable. They are so soft, so forgiving. I love the robe that ties under the bust. Just the best. Thank you, mom.
+OMG — these golf socks with the pom poms!!! My mom used to wear these golfing in the 80s and I love that TB’s brought them back.
+Net-A-Porter now carries a limited range of childrenswear, and I’m swooning over these spend-y but darling Chloe shoes…
+Rebecca Taylor’s sale section always slays me. Currently lusting after this, this, and this. (Though I am determined to get out of my jeans-only rut, an easy formula for a spring outfit: a white pair of skinnies and a range of chic blouses.)
+This rosebud swimsuit is precious.
+How sweet is this little dish for decorative purposes in a nursery?