Book Review: The Longings of Women by Marge Piercy

the longings of women1994

Penguin

I was first made aware of Marge Piercy’s work when I saw her novel Woman on the Edge of Time listed as one the great feminist classics in a newspaper article a few years ago. At the time I was reading a great deal of science fiction, mostly by women. I’d worked my way through Octavia Butler and Ursula Le Guin’s work and was looking for more of the same. I was so blown away by Woman on the Edge of Time that I decided to start hunting out more of Marge Piercy’ work. So far I’ve read Vida, Sex Wars and her poetry collection, The Moon is Always Female.

With so many expectations heaped on poor Marge from yours truly, it was perhaps inevitable that I was going to come across one or two that failed to meet my expectations. The Longings of Women was one. I guess I’ve been spoilt by her other books. I don’t want to put others off from trying it. Perhaps I was simply expecting too much, but my overriding impression after finishing the book was one of dissatisfaction. I felt that somehow I’d been short-changed.

The novel enters around the lives of three characters, Leila a semi-successful academic married to a theatre director with a love of sleeping with his leading ladies. Her story intersects with those of two other characters, Becky Burgess, a woman accused of murdering her husband and the subject of a book Leila hopes to write and Mary Burke, a cleaning lady who works for Leila and who, after the breakdown of her marriage, finds herself homeless. Leila is the pivot around which the other two characters circle and it is through her that we meet these women and learn more about their lives.

If you go into this novel accepting that you’re not going to get an intricately plotted ‘who-done-it’ then you won’t be disappointed. After accepting this I was much more able to step back and look again at the way she approaches not only social issues but also feminist concerns. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that explores the issue of homeless in women in the way I did in this novel. It completely altered my perception of homelessness, the kinds of people who are homeless and the kind of life they lead not just on the streets (here we find that actually very few live ‘on the streets’). The term rough-sleeper would be far more accurate.

All of the women lead precarious lives. Mary Burke, the cleaning lady is the prime example. Once she lead a comfortable middle-class life with all the trappings that came with that. But as soon as her husband leaves her for a younger woman, her comfortable existence is revealed to be built on sand and slowly she begins to discover how quickly everything she once had, could be taken away from her. Turn to Leila and we see much the same thing occurring. Her husband decides to leave her for another woman but what’s great about Leila’s story is that a decline such as we see in Mary’s life doesn’t have to be inevitable. What stops this from occurring, in my mind, is the fact that Leila is not dependent on a man financially. This proves to be Mary’s undoing. I found this quite striking because it shows how important it is for women to be financially independent. Not only that but Leila, unlike her sister, doesn’t feel the need to move from one serious relationship/marriage to another. Instead, Leila takes a lover, thus fulfilling her sexual needs whilst at the same time maintaining her independence and identity.

What we then see in the character of Becky Burgess, a woman accused of murdering her husband with the help of her younger lover, is someone who is incredibly ambitious but who also cannot separate this ambition from her desire to marry for money and financial stability. We can hardly blame her, we’re told, when we see how desperate she is to ‘improve herself’ and distance herself from her poor upbringing. But as the story unfolds we see that her family, despite having very little, offer her so much more that she first appreciates.

Piercy tackles issues such as class and gender head on. Yes, a lot of the misfortunes that befall these women are related to the men in their lives but it also signals a path forward and away from these misfortunes. Again and again we see women carrying the financial and emotional burdens of maintain a family life and home. The irony for Becky is that even though she marries Terry for a comfortable life, it is her that shoulders the financial burdens when he loses his job. Likewise, Leila’s husband, a theatre director doesn’t make enough to lead the kind of lifestyle he enjoys and Leila is the one baring the brunt financially.  So often this is overlooked when we discuss women’s lives because men are routinely viewed as the breadwinners. But here we have three women clinging onto a place of their own. The idea of home becomes an important symbol throughout the novel. Mary loses her home, Becky feels hers is under threat and Leila realises the burden of maintaining the burden of home she cannot afford.

The more I thought about The Longings of Women, long after I’d finished it, the more I began to appreciate what Marge Piercy was trying to do with this novel.  It’s not often that I read such well-rounded characters. What’s interesting about these three women is that they’re not always ‘likeable’ a word that is always levelled again female characters as if a book can only be good if the women in it are likeable. I’ve never felt this needed to be the case and it isn’t in this novel. This doesn’t take anything away from the book but it does mean that you do need to stick with these characters and not give up on them when you realise that they’re not necessarily people you’d want to share a drink with.

Instead, these are women who are simply desperate to be seen. Mary, once she loses her home, starts to become invisible. She’s able to wander the streets and because she refuses to become a typical ‘bag-lady’ she is overlooked. Likewise, Becky feels she’s continually overlooked at the Sound Cable company that she works for as a receptionist. She desperate to get on T.V. and the media coverage of her husband’s murder temporarily gives her the visibility she has always wanted. But it is this very same visibility that brings her to the attention of the police and acts as her downfall. Finally, Leila feels as a middle-aged woman, that she is no longer seen as attractive or desirable by others.

If you’re looking for a plot-driven novel, The Longings of Women isn’t the book for you. I was hoping for a big reveal at the end or at the very least a few twists and turns with respect to the murder case, but non were forthcoming. I don’t want to offer up any spoilers but the novel seemed to sacrifice plot for characterisation. This was where the strength of the novel lay. Using multiple character view points is something that’s quite common in Piercy’s work and this one is no different. So whilst for me this isn’t Piercy at her very best, it is still better than a lot of literature I’ve read that purports to examine the effects of social class on the lives of women.

3 1/2 stars

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