A few weeks ago, I was at the bookstore with a friend. We were looking at the vast array of new books, and I said, “I really need something easy and straightforward. I need a book with a beginning, middle, and end. I don’t want a twist. I don’t want any ghosts or dragons or unreliable narrators.”
When I’m in that kind of mood, I drift toward family dramas. But I have to be careful. I don’t really like family dramas that involve serious illnesses (e.g. the kind where the clan gets together for Thanksgiving and grandma reveals that she’s going to die shortly). I’m also not crazy about family dramas where the problem at the center is too mundane (e.g. the reason that the siblings don’t get along is that Susie always got the last piece of chicken at family dinners), or where the only problem is a misunderstanding (e.g. Sally thought that Mary excluded her from some big event, but Mary was really out planning Sally’s surprise party). And then, there’s the problem with the pink covers.
I have written before about my issues with women’s fiction. On the one hand, I gravitate toward women’s fiction like it’s a bowl of leftover Halloween candy in November. On the other hand, I tend to get so deeply annoyed when I think that the author is pandering to a gender stereotype (A bowl full of kisses and kittens!). And wait – there’s a third hand! I also get annoyed when female characters are ridiculously mean and underhanded just to serve some gendered idea of a “cat fight.”
You’d think – with so many concerns and red flags and possible complaints – that I’d steer clear of any book with a pink cover. But these past couple of weeks, I read two books with pink covers, back to back. And I got my wish: no ghosts, no dragons, no unreliable narrators. But neither book completely satisfied me, either.
Love and Biology At the Center of the Universe by Jennie Shortridge has been on my shelf for almost a decade. Shortridge is a local (to me) author, and this book features a glimpse into a vanishing version of Seattle – a time when a person could afford to rent an apartment in a fun neighborhood while working as a barista. The main character, Mira, flees her life in small town Oregon when her husband of several decades tells her that he’s unhappy. She lands in Seattle, rents an apartment above an adorable coffee shop, and begins a new life as a middle-aged woman on her own. She makes new friends, finds a couple of cute men to romance, and untangles her true self from others’ expectations. (Note to the protagonist: Answer your flip phone! Listen to your messages! Some misunderstandings might be cleared up!)
I’m not sure why this book languished on my shelf, but I’m actually glad I didn’t read it earlier. Perhaps I should have waited even longer. This is NOT a book that should be read by younger women. Certainly, one of the benefits of having older, vibrant female characters is that younger people get to see that women don’t disappear at age 30. However, in an effort to be funny, Shortridge brings too many (very) awkward elements of aging to the table. I kept thinking that Mira’s…er…private moments should be more private. Ack! I would definitely put a warning sticker on this one: PG-50.
Shortly after I finished the Shortridge book, Eight Hundred Grapes by Laura Dave showed up for me at the library. This book received press this summer as a “Great Summer Read,” but true to my luck, I couldn’t get my hands on it until November. This is one of those books that seems like a screenplay-in-the-making, kind of like a family-centered, literary version of the film, Sideways. And lo and behold, it is being turned into a movie! In it, a young woman, Georgia, discovers that her fiancé has a Big Secret. And rather than deal with the dishonesty, she retreats to her family home in Sonoma. When she gets there, she discovers that her parents also have secrets! And her brothers have secrets! And no one is dealing with those secrets. Plus, her father has sold the family vineyard to a large corporation. What a mess!
And now I’m going to say something that will seem odd given my previous discussion. I don’t think that Georgia’s relationship problems and coming-to-adulthood should be the focus of the book. Instead, I’d like to see MORE attention given to the relationship and romance between her aging (like a fine wine) parents. The vineyard and all of its symbolism of commitment and loss should be THEIR story. But my hunch is that this book needed a young narrator with a gorgeous fiancé to be considered a Great Summer Read, and it will certainly need those elements to translate into a blockbuster movie.
I’m guessing that I will be writing this post again and again throughout my blogging career. I find my way to these pink books with eyes wide open. Then I get mad, storm off, vow to never return. But I do return, like a daughter in a dysfunctional family full of secrets, hoping the family will be different this time.