“Have sex and die.” Helen Coulter barely paused for breath. “That’s what she’s saying.”
Helen’s words produced the heavy silence of a collective held breath. Etiquette had been broached. My book group had been discussing Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. More accurately, we’d been listening to another member discuss the research she’d done on the book and author when Helen charged in.
My teacher-muscles twitched, ready to chastise Helen for interrupting. I reminded myself that this wasn’t a classroom, it was a living room, and its occupants, all nine of us, were adults.
Helen filled the lull she’d created. “I’m sick of that literary staple—dark-haired women who lust and die.” Helen tossed her own sleek cap of brown-black hair like one of those vixen-heroines of old B movies. “Why was suicide her only option? Suicide is cowardly, too easy. She had her own house, her painting, friends like the piano teacher, her children—why do such a thing? No wonder the critics hated it.”
“Not because of that.” Denise was who’d been interrupted. “They considered it pornography.” Denise had a sheaf of print-outs on her lap, and although she was being polite about being interrupted and misrepresented, she kept smoothing her skirt in a compulsive manner that suggested how much she wanted to do the same thing to the discussion.
“Well, it makes this critic sick, too,” Helen said. “Maybe a woman wrote it, but she’s echoing all the men through history who decided that if a woman steps across their line in the sand—sexually—she has to be punished.”
At this, Denise stopped pressing her skirt and sat up, on alert, sensing a slur on her husband, Roy Stanton Harris, state legislator, candidate for Congress, and energetic advocate of “family values.” In my family, values meant really good buys—low rates for strip steak or telephone calls, but it didn’t mean that to him.
Denise was a fairly recent bride. She’d retained her maiden and professional name since marrying Roy Stanton, as she always referred to him, but she’d merged identity and opinions with him and had become the perfect political wife.
“Sorry,” Helen said, not sounding at all sorry. “But that’s how I feel. Sick and tired of men telling women what to do with their bodies.”
Denise looked on the verge of snapping back, but only for the smallest interval. And then her composed expression, returned. “Could we talk about the book? About Kate Chopin’s book?” she asked quietly. “About Edna Pontillier and her world?”
In response, a chorus of voices. After a year in the group, I’ve given up wishing we’d be coherent or stay on track. We’ve twice voted down the idea of a formal leader, and instead took turns leading sessions. We are noisy and opinionated, sometimes chaotic, but I appreciate the emotion that’s behind the clamor. A love of books propelled me into teaching, then made the job frustrating, because I can so seldom transfer my passion for words and stories to my students. So it’s a treat to gather with literate women to whom ideas mattered, women who savored books the way they might fine meals. Or savaged them if they found them rancid, because its quality mattered to them.
“Don’t blondes also lust and die?” Clary Oliver asked. She was Helen’s business partner and best friend, and together, they produced high-end children’s clothing. Now she adopted a challenging stance and raised her eyebrows. “Hath not a blonde a sex drive?” she asked. Her own head sported a unique and expensive shade of beige.
Her sister and shadow, Louisa, also blonde, laughed with a harsh “Ha!” that I was sure was supposed to convey lots of meaning, but Louisa’s meanings were generally not worth figuring out.
“Sorry, Clary,” Helen told her partner, “but think about those famous sex and suicide girls, Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina and Edna, too. Not a single blonde.”
Susan Hileman, whose red hair and freckles could have been borrowed from Raggedy Ann, spoke up. “I read somewhere it goes back to the blonde Anglo-Saxons. The invading barbarians, the baddies, were dark, and we all know wild, sexy women are bad, right? So they’re dark, too. Angels and babies are blonde, the pure and the innocent, unless the woman’s a platinum blonde—an obvious fake, and thereby corrupt.”
Susan had been a lit. major with me at Penn, and a year ago was my conduit into this long-established book group. She worked for a PR firm, tweaking images. But that was, she insisted, only her day job. Her true calling was as a writer, and she had a mystery in progress.
There had been several earlier mysteries in progress. I wasn’t sure she’d ever finished any of them.
“Renegade blondes,” she continued, “the obviously bleached kind—they drive a man to his destruction by making him kill for her. Except for Marilyn Monroe, who was perfect, because she was bleached but squooshy. Corrupt, but compliant.” Susan pointed at her springy red curls. “As for me, my literary or film role is doomed to be as the sexless best friend.”
I wondered if there really was a pattern, and where my own brown hair—I like to think of it as chestnut, but really, it depends on the light—fit into the spectrum. Undoubtedly not in the province of heroines, and not even of sexy villainesses, more’s the pity.
“Edna killed herself,” Tess said, quietly pulling us back to the subject at hand. “Drowning was certainly not her only option.” Tess was a psychologist with short no nonsense brown hair. I just knew there weren’t any myths about the two of us.
“Do you think society killed Edna?” I asked. “In the sense that it had no place for her. She had two affairs. She didn’t much care about her kids. She no longer fit anywhere.”
“Thank God times have changed,” someone softly commented.
“Nothing’s that changed,” Helen said. “Because of the Ednas. Edna could have stood up for herself, lived a Bohemian life, defied them, but she didn’t. That’s the same today. Most people won’t take a stand—a stand that might put them in a bad light.”
“It was harder then.” The incongruously babyish voice belonged to Helen’s neighbor, Roxanne Parisi. Roxanne struck me as a woman reinventing herself, at least outwardly. Her current image seemed costumed rather than dressed, in gauzy layers and noisy jewelry, and all of it topped by hair dyed the color of fine Bordeaux. But her voice seemed left over from an earlier incarnation.
“It’s hard now,” Helen said. “Hard to take a stand. Be defiant.”
“Don’t you just love the ruined woman!” Susan said with her customary verve.
“Ruined! As if we’re pill bottles with warnings: do not use if seal is broken—contents may have been tampered with.”
“How come you can’t ruin a man?” somebody muttered.
“Can we get back to this book?” Poor Denise. She had assiduously prepared for the evening, and here we were, being especially unruly, even though the group was smaller than normal tonight.
“What about her children?” Helen demanded. “Didn’t she have an obligation to them?”
“She didn’t really like them all that much.”
“The art! Everybody’s forgetting the art and the piano teacher—Madame—what’s her—remember how independent—”
“The book’s a hundred years old—you have to remember the cultural context—Victorian, for God’s sake—against which—”
“That’s right—why aren’t we looking at her as a woman of her times and her specific world?”
We were into the verbal free-for-alls that drove us crazy but never stopped.
“After all, the book was banned, libraries wouldn’t take it, Chopin never published another book—”
“I guess the book is relevant,” Helen said. “Because it’s so pathetically predictable. Women having sex voluntarily. Men deciding what to do about it. And one hundred years later, nothing’s changed except the language of it.”
The chorus swelled, disagreeing, agreeing, addressing the group, herself, the woman next to her, as many verdicts as voices.
“What about her affairs?” Clary asked.“Aren’t they relevant? What about her morality? Does everybody here think what she did is all right?”
“You’re right—the book’s about marriage, isn’t it? About how oppressive and confining it is.”
Half the time, the married half of the group proselytized for marriage. One of us was a young widow, two were divorced, one had already run through three husbands, another, two, and yet another had been engaged for ten years. And then there was me. I. Amanda Pepper, spinster teacher. I didn’t have an ex and I didn’t have long-term commitments with the man I lived with. I was therefore the focus of their missionary zeal. As if my mother had trained them.
They never seemed to notice that when they weren’t touting that hallowed institution, they were trashing it, but I did.
“Wouldn’t you have an affair if you were married to that man?”
“The book’s called The Awakening, after all—”
“I think it means more than sexual awakening. I think it means—”
In the din, the only voices we could hear were our own. It was one of those moments when you don’t want the male of the species to happen by our “discussion” and have his every disgusting macho prejudice confirmed.
But no man was likely to stroll by. Helen’s husband Ivan was out of town, in Cleveland, foraging for shopping centers, parking lots and office buildings. I don’t completely understand what he does, but I do understand that it’s lucrative, as witness the house he and Helen had been renovating for nearly a year.
Philadelphia’s Delancey Street where Helen lived is interesting. The blocks alternate between large homes and huge homes. It’s said that originally, one block was for the wealthy, the next, meant to house their servants. I’m not sure that’s completely true, but Helen’s house was definitely of the lord of the manor variation with four stories of spacious high-ceilinged rooms, plus a solarium and roof garden currently being installed as a finishing touch. I wondered if the small family of three ever crossed paths in the enormous house.
Earlier, we’d toured the renovations, oohed and ahhed over the new fireplace in the master bedroom, the Jacuzzi tub, the super-sleek and expanded kitchen, the brick patio behind the house, the enlarged rear window, the skylighted bathroom. We’d even done anticipatory oohing at the potential roof garden, at the chickenwire fencing, the bags of dirt and stacks of brick. I could imagine the solarium, the flower garden, the bricks turned into a privacy wall. It was going to be magical up there on a summer’s night.
“She was a baby-making ornament.” The voice brought me back to the living room and poor drowned dark-haired Edna Pontillier.
“Think that’s so different from half the marriages you know today? She was an early trophy wife, is all.”
Nobody looked at Denise, who was our closest thing to a trophy-wife. She was twenty years younger than Roy Stanton and quite beautiful. But I had a sense that her ambition was as fierce and powerful as his. Maybe he was the trophy.
“What about my question,” Clary asked. “Having an affair doesn’t change anything.”
“Except the quality of the sex. That’s not chopped liver.”
“See—here—I’ll find it, I’m sure.” Susan shook her red curls and flipped pages, then put the book back down. “I mean, Mademoiselle Reiz is part of what ‘awakens’ Edna. The piano music makes her aware of passion and beauty. I wanted her to continue with her art, be like Mademoiselle Reiz, an interesting outsider.”
“She would have been ostracized!”
Good books are like Rorschach tests. What each person finds on the page depends on what she’s brought along with her. I know very little about the daily lives of these women. I see most only once a month, but I feel as if I know more about their values and concerns, of what matters to them and who they are, than I do about many of my longtime friends. All of that is via the books we read, the ideas that fill our monthly meetings.
Think about it—we were ten adults squabbling about a woman who lived—fictionally—a century ago, in a vastly different culture. It was delicious. It was fun. It was amazing that we could care that much about Edna’s suicide and what led to it.
I’d once had a student whose mother was Vietnamese, a woman who spent her childhood trying to survive, not perusing Western classics. She’d married a U.S. soldier and moved to Philadelphia with him, and now, she was catching up on US culture via her children’s assignments. So when her daughter’s class read Romeo and Juliet, so did she. And she was heartbroken by its ending, had expected, her daughter told me, that “they would work things out and move to a nice house in the suburbs.”
But the women in this luxurious living room were not immigrants who’d never before seen works of Western literature. And in truth, we weren’t arguing about Edna’s decision to drown herself or Kate Chopin’s writing style or about Victorian social systems, no matter the words whirling around the room. We were talking about our systems of belief, our confusions and our blind spots.
We munched away as the discussion went on. Helen was an exemplary hostess. Tonight, even while she spoke, she simultaneously refilled wine glasses and passed platters holding cheeses, miniature calzones and fruit.
Someone once again mentioned Edna’s suicide, and once again, Helen exploded. Something was gnawing at her tonight. Maybe it was the stress of the remodel for more than half a year. “Suicide was a cop-out!” she said. “A way for Chopin to end the book. But it’s stupid. If you’re going to die, literally or metaphorically—might as well go down in flames, not do yourself in. Stand up for something—fight for something.”
“Fight for what?”
“What she believed in. What she wanted! Confront the hypocrites. Do something for change! Then she could have left if she was so unhappy. Gone off the way her lover did, to a new country where things are different. Or stayed and defied them all. Maybe even said hello to her kids once in a while.”
“Can we slow down, back up, and talk about the book? “Denise asked. “I have reviews and commentary.”
“We are talking about the book.” Helen surprised me with the chill that had entered her voice.
“I don’t see what’s wrong about discussing our reactions,” Tess said. “It obviously struck nerves, so maybe—”
“But Denise did all this work—” Clary tried.
In their partnership, Helen leaned toward the visionary end of the spectrum, the designs and fabrics, and Clary was the one who handled the cold, hard facts of doing business.
It was in character that Helen would declaim and Clary would try to get us back on track. It was in character for us that her attempts had no effect.
Helen looked at her partner with unfocused eyes, as if all she’d registered was noise, not words. “Nothing’s changed, either,” she said. “No offense, Denise, but politicians preaching hypocritical family values are as oppressive to women as Edna’s society was. Why aren’t any of them saying ‘impregnate a woman, go to jail?’ It’s all about punishing females men have treated rottenly.”
“This isn’t about today’s value systems,” Denise said. “Edna’s personal was not the political.”
“But it was, it is! It always is!” Helen said.
“Really, Helen,” Clary murmured. “Can’t we listen to—”
“Can’t you see it yourself? That’s what it’s about! Men looking for women to blame through the centuries. And they still are. But what if Edna had spoken up instead, let other women hear new ideas? I wanted her to be brave.” She sipped her wine and seemed to visibly cool down. “Sorry,” she said. “Some things infuriate me.”
Denise smiled brightly at me. “You’re quiet tonight.”
I hadn’t realized how much of an observer rather than participant I’d been until she mentioned it. “I was thinking about what Helen said. One of my classes is reading The Scarlet Letter, so that idea of looking for a woman to blame through centuries—”
“The Scarlet Letter,” Susan interrupted me with enormous authority. “The Colonial variation on the theme—but Hester didn’t die. She went to live in Europe, and got rich, didn’t she? So there goes your theory, Helen. And then there’s Polly Baker.”
At mention of the name, all side conversations stopped for universal groaning.
Susan looked stunned, but she shouldn’t have. Last meeting, she’d told us much more than anybody wanted to know about Polly Baker, the heroine of a practical joke once played by Benjamin Franklin. Polly supposedly was a Colonial woman tried for fornication after the birth of her fifth illegitimate child. At her trial, she spoke on her own behalf so eloquently that one of her judges married her. Together, they produced fifteen more children.
People took Polly seriously for nearly two centuries, and now she supposedly had an important role in Susan’s unfinished mystery.
“You told us about her. We listened. And listened. Don’t start!” Although Roxanne delivered the lines in humorous fashion, it was obvious she meant it. We all meant it.
“But she’s relevant!” Susan said. “Love outside of marriage, punishment—except she triumphed.”
“Susan, she never existed.”
“I say we rename our group The Polly Baker Memorial Reading Circle and be done with it,” Tess said, provoking applause. “I mean, what else do we have in common?”
“Well, some of you have workmen in common,” I said with a smile, hoping to get us off a debate about Polly Baker. The flagstone for Helen’s solarium hadn’t arrived, so the contractor had moved his crew to Tess’ house where they were enclosing and insulating a porch. I was aware of such details because they made me aware of how different my life felt from some of my book club-mates. Mine was free of building materials. That felt significant.
“No, seriously,” Tess said. “We’re different ages, different jobs, different taste in reading and men and let’s be honest, politics, and lifestyles—but we all, and always will, have Polly. Apparently.”
“You’re making fun, but I like it,” Susan said, head high. “We could have pins and t-shirts made. She’d be our mascot.”
“If you’d finish the book.”
“Can we please talk about this book?” Clary asked. Her eternal politician’s wife politeness was wearing thin. “Let’s get back to Edna.”
By now, interest was lagging. Two women examined the fabric on the newly recovered sofas. Susan and Clary looked annoyed, Tess, who worked with the mentally unstable, and was therefore comfortable with uncontrollable groups, looked bemused, and Denise kept checking her watch.
At which point, Helen sighed and had another hearty dose of white wine. “I’m glad I don’t have to drive anywhere tonight,” she said. “And I apologize for taking the floor or the soapbox and ruining the discussion. How about if I get coffee and dessert while you all talk? Without me in the room, there’s a chance you’ll get to hear all that stuff Denise prepared.”
I offered to help. The house was so large, the kitchen seemed a commuter-train ride away. A long way to carry ten coffee cups and if Helen was true to form, almost as many varieties of sweets. Susan also joined us.
“You girls,” Denise said. “The Three Musketeers.”
Which we were not, but earlier in the evening when we’d been up on the roof, Susan had made a comment—I couldn’t even remember it now—that made Helen and me laugh. And Denise had commented about that, too, as if we were a clique. “Right back,” I repeated, and followed Helen through a series of gorgeous, rooms.
From then on, we did, actually, talk about the book. Sometimes even in turn. And listened to Denise’s research about Kate Chopin’s life and philosophy plus critiques of this work—the damning ones when it was first published and the reconsiderations eighty years later when the work was rediscovered. And then we talked again about personal reactions to Edna’s comfortable but closed-tight world, her short climb out of it and then, her downward spiral.
Finally, we planned the next meeting. We were reading the newest Barbara Kingsolver, in which I was pretty sure nobody killed herself for the sin of having had sex.
The evening nearly over, Helen’s mood grew less dark. She lifted her coffee cup in a toast. “Here’s a promise,” she said. “Next meeting, I will not get on my hobby horse, whatever horse that might be. I promise that I won’t say a word.”
We were all to remember that promise and how Helen kept it.
© Gillian Roberts.