Written By a Woman About Women and Not "Chick-Lit" — How Can It Be?!

I don’t have much time to write (deadlines loom!) but just want to point you all to a most excellent book I read over the weekend, Janelle Brown’s All We Ever Wanted Was Everything. It’s a biting, point-on satire on the order of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections; it’s also what the TV show Desperate Housewives could have been had the originator been allowed to keep his satirical vision, had network television not ridiculously cheesified it, made it into the antithesis of its potential.

AWEWWE is about a Silicon Alley family coming unglued, ironically in the wake of a financial windfall from skyrocketing stock. The patriarch decides his wildly successful IPO makes for the perfect time to abscond with his mistress, who happens to be his wife’s good friend. Matriarch Janice, a prototypical upper middle-class suburban housewife, gave up career and grad school to be a homemaker, raise the family in the highest style her husband’s salary could afford, only to become by turns the pity and laughingstock of her suffocatingly stuffy gated community. Left career- and husband-less at 49, she has nothing, and it’s heartbreaking to watch her drugged up in her bedroom poring over old copies of Parisian gossip mags in an attempt to regain her youth. After college, she was all set to go on postgraduate study abroad, a dream stifled by her first pregnancy.

The youngest daughter, 14-year-old Lizzie, hopelessly overweight, turns to promiscuity to try to reverse the tide of her unpopularity at school. Middle daughter Margaret is the character I personally felt the strongest for — perhaps she is the one whose life most resonated with me. At 29, with several degrees she’s the opposite educationally of her mother, yet she finds herself completely suffocated with debt after trying to make a go of a serious writing career. Problem is she put all her efforts into founding a literary post-modern feminist magazine, which doesn’t do so well, particularly in L.A. So angering to watch her screenwriter and music video-producer friends throw money around the table of a posh restaurant like confetti, while Margaret struggles to come up with her third of the friend’s birthday meal — $350.

This is what you get in these lovely United States for doing well in school, for remaining true to your ideals, for being a good housewife and mother and giving up your career for an unplanned pregnancy, for trying to lose weight and become popular.

Of course it’s not entirely dark. Through crisis the women (all so different) do come to understand each other, or at least try to. My only problem with the book is that the father seems a little too one-dimensional. Satire or not, I think all characters have to have some semblance of believability, of sympathy, even if we strongly dislike them.

Interesting thing though, I was glancing at the customer reviews on Facebook and Amazon and people seemed pretty bewildered, didn’t seem to get that it was a satire. Customer reviews were sharply at odds with those by professional critics. I scrolled down to see that the booksellers were likening AWEWWE mainly to books by Jane Green, Jennifer Weiner, Lauren Weisberger — authors of a genre that has come to be known over the past decade or so as “chick lit,” a term many female writers find demeaning (Weiner doesn’t; I’ve heard her speak on the issue). The biggest problem I find with the term is that, unlike its male counterpart, “lad lit” (think Nick Hornby and progeny), it’s become ludicrously overbroad, has come to apply to anything written by a woman whose main characters are women.

I found this book through The Elegant Variation, whose input I’ve come to trust, and when I saw who’d edited it — Julie Grau — I knew from other books she’s done I’d likely be happy with this one. But when I went searching for it at Barnes & Noble, I found it shelved with “beach reading,” along with the other aforesaid books. I don’t think I would have picked it up if I hadn’t seen it on Mr. E’s blog, and after finding it where I did in the bookstore I questioned whether I wanted to buy it until I saw the editor. If a book is classified a certain way, people expect a certain thing. With “chick lit” I guess they expect a light romantic comedy with pretty, happy people whose crises are slight and common enough that many readers can wholly relate without trying very hard. AWEWWE is a dark satire, much more akin to, as I said, The Corrections, or to Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm or Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land. No wonder people were shocked. But then again, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to “trick” young people into reading literature…

Anyway, here’s an apropos interview Ms. Brown gave to Jezebel.

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