I must admit, I selected “Women’s Lives and Relationships” as one of my genres with a certain amount of trepidation and cynicism. I thoroughly enjoy female protagonists in historical fiction books, but I have always found it difficult to identify with women in contemporary settings. When I watch a movie or a television show, I most often choose male characters as my favorites and oftentimes develop an uncalled for feeling of scorn for the female characters. It’s difficult to explain; I suppose I just feel that female characters are usually weak in comparison with their male counterparts, and I tire of the same old stereotypes showing up in every woman character nowadays—they are always beautiful, without a blemish or hair out of place, they always have the “ideal” body and are highly fashionable, and they are often severely lacking in personality. Frankly, they just bore me. This is one of a few reasons I have avoided books about contemporary women.
Luckily for me, I spied Elinor Lipman’s name in our textbook and chose to read her fairly recent work My Latest Grievance, which features a young but highly intelligent female protagonist whom I grew to admire the more I glimpsed of her character and her life. Frederica Hatch was born and raised in a college dormitory at Dewing college, a small women’s college in Boston. The Hatches are what they call a “dorm family”—Frederica’s father and mother, David and Aviva, have served as “houseparents” of the dorm her entire life, saving themselves tremendous amounts in housing and food expenses. Frederica’s upbringing has been rather unique—her parents are politically correct to the point of obnoxiousness, and she lives among several older, surrogate “sisters” who change every year. Her life is so entrenched in the world of academia, it’s no wonder she sometimes finds herself yearning for the “normal” life she witnesses at her friends’ houses.
In 1976, when Frederica is sixteen years old, she accidentally learns of her father’s previous marriage to a woman named Laura Lee French, with whom she makes contact. Circumstances soon lead to Laura Lee becoming a housemother of another dorm on campus, and this is where the plot takes off. Laura Lee’s presence is initially refreshing and exciting to Frederica, who tires of her parents’ neutral attitudes toward everything. However, when Laura Lee involves herself in a scandalous affair with the college president (who is married with three children, I might add), Frederica sees firsthand the harm that Laura Lee selfishly causes others—and contemplates turning against her.
This is a small but incredibly dense book; Lipman is incredibly eloquent and detail-oriented, and she devotes much of the text developing her unique and quirky characters. Despite this, I would definitely classify this as a “light read,” especially in comparison with the heavy-handed literary fiction I’m used to. Lipman relies heavily on dialogue, and she plays on her strengths by focusing on characters over the plot, which works well in a story like this. The optimistic tone and witty humor was enjoyable and refreshing after the last book I read (namely, A Thousand Splendid Suns). All of the characteristics of the typical women’s lives genre are here: it is an intimate glimpse into the lives of the Frederica and her family, and the story is slowly paced yet still compelling.
This book gives me hope that there are more books in the “Women’s Lives” genre that will interest me—ones that are intelligently written and focus more on loyalty to family and friends than on careers and romance. I would recommend this book for women like me who perhaps have been avoiding this genre, but are interested in giving it a chance. I’m definitely glad I did.
Title: My Latest Grievance
Author: Elinor Lipman
Publication date: 2006
Number of pages: 243
Setting: A small college in Boston, Massachusetts
Time period: 1960s-1970s
Subject headings: Teenage girls—Fiction, College teachers—Fiction