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The Novel of Female Ambition Evolves

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It’s been hard for critics to write about Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings and Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs without leaving fictional territory and ranging into journalism. “Into the ongoing debate over whether or not women can ‘have it all’ comes a Molotov cocktail thrown by an unlikely provocateur,” states the Observer review of Messud’s book, referencing the Anne-Marie Slaughter Atlantic article on how we can’t. The Times review of The Interestings connects another Wolitzer novel, The Ten-Year Nap, to a recent version of the same story: “Amy had quit her law job when she and her husband had a baby, staying home for one year, then two—a process Sheryl Sandberg, the C.O.O. of Facebook, described … as ‘quietly leaning back.’” 

What’s interesting about Wolitzer and Messud though is not just their passionate and skillful descriptions of female ambition and women artists at work, because novelists have been doing that for over a hundred years, anticipating most aspects of the current “having it all” and “leaning in” debate. Wolitzer and Messud are both telling more complicated stories, in which their heroines fail, and have to figure out how they feel about that—with some new, and slightly uncomfortable twists.

In the late nineteenth century, writers like Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Louisa May Alcott argued that women should achieve independence from their families: "I'm sick of this dull town, where the one idea is eat, drink, and get rich; I don't find any friends to help me as I want to be helped, or any work that I can do well; so let me go… and find my place, wherever it is," begs Christie, the heroine of Alcott’s 1872 novel Work: A Story of Experience. In mid-twentieth-century novels, the ties of work often gathered women for mutual support away from home, creating new families with their own attachments and dysfunctions—see Barbara Pym’s fretting spinsters and Muriel Spark’s bitchy working girls; the ambitious, often frustrated female writers and actors in Doris Lessing’s 1963 The Golden Notebook, or Mary McCarthy’s striving Vassar grads in The Group

In the 1970s feminist incarnation, as with Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room, work became an even more urgently desired outlet: a liberation, although not always an uncomplicated one, from bad men, dangerous sex, and the numbing drudgery of home life. “[Mira] felt rich, full of energy, she wanted to plunge into her work,” French writes about her central character, who has divorced her controlling husband and started a Ph.D. program at Harvard. “She felt as if things were continually being freed in her, as if her imprisoning these things had made her tired all these years.”

It’s fairly wonderful, at least from a feminist stand-point, to see how much the stakes have lowered for the female heroes of novels since then, who either don’t need to leave their husbands to fulfill their ambitions, or who are free to do it without facing the existential and financial turmoil that a similar character in the 1970s might face. Sheila Heti’s narrator in her recent “novel from life,” How Should A Person Be?, leaves her husband; but she’s not prompted by the same sense of stifled possibilities—by the sense that she literally couldn’t have been a writer without the divorce. Nor is it a notable rarity now to see novels (like movies, TV shows, etc.) structured entirely around a woman’s conflicts at work, with relationships and domestic life playing a secondary role, the way they always have in novels about men: look at Allegra Goodman and Andrea Barrett’s excellent novels about working scientists. 

Wolitzer and Messud’s novels are both updated versions of the old-school female ambition novel: the old split between work and domesticity, transposed onto different varieties of work, creative and not creative. In fact they read a lot like novels that have long been written about men facing choices between the authentic, creative life and dull paying jobs—Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road or Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, for example. Messud’s book, The Woman Upstairs, is the story of Nora Eldridge, a forty-two-year-old elementary-school teacher, “Neither old nor young, neither fat nor thin, tall nor short, blond nor brunette, neither pretty nor plain,” who once dreamed of being an artist but gave up through a combination of outside pressure and lack of motivation. She enjoys her teaching job, but exists in a fog of resentment and unrealized dreams until she meets the Shahids, an intellectual family who inspire a fever of friendship, creativity, and envy that nearly destroys her. 

In Wolitzer’s novel, outsider Jules Jacobson becomes enamored with “the Interestings,” a clique at her camp for artistically gifted children. Jules, with less resources than the rest, stops trying to make it as an actress in her twenties and gets a social work degree, then marries a supportive and loving—but “regular”—sonogram technician (“He wasn’t in the arts, wasn’t dying to be an actor or a cartoonist or a dancer or an oboist. He wasn’t Jewish, or even half.”) Meanwhile, her best friends become astronomically successful in their creative fields—making Jules occasionally want to strangle them. 

In an era when women face fewer obstacles to success, the question for both Nora and Jules is: what happens if you don’t succeed to your full potential? Not that obstacles don’t remain; Messud and Wolitzer are both clear-eyed about that. But if you don’t have the excuse of a bad marriage or a rampantly sexist society, do you blame yourself, your parents, your friends, your normal, nice husband? As Nora says at one point: “I always thought I’d get farther. I’d like to blame the world for what I’ve failed to do, but the failure—the failure that sometimes washes over me as anger, makes me so angry I could spit—is all mine, in the end.” So then what? Do you become completely depressed? Do you lash out? Or do you find some way to give in and appreciate what you have?

Jules settles, which in most novels about ambitious women would be tantamount to soul-death. And yet it is a satisfying, wise conclusion to Jules’s story: “You didn’t always need to be the dazzler, the firecracker, the one who cracked everyone up, or made everyone want to sleep with you, or be the one who wrote and starred in the play that got the standing ovation. You could cease to be obsessed with the idea of being interesting.” Which raises the question of whether the author of this ambitious, 500-page novel had to settle at any point—the book doesn’t read that way, certainly. But Wolitzer’s point is broader and more generous, more about a theory of the good life and how to live it, with work one part of a whole. 

Nora, meanwhile, without a family to support, with a stronger sense of her own betrayed talent, refuses to give in and explodes into a rant of white-hot if vague aspirations: “I’m angry enough to set fire to a house just by looking at it.” Like Messud herself, who’s had to answer condescending questions about why her character is so “unbearably grim,” Nora knows some women need to stay on fire.