So, every October, I like to Celebrate My Lurrrve and welcome the season by revisiting Duncan. (Luckily, the recent rereleases of I Know What You Did Last Summer, Killing Mr. Griffin and Don’t Look Behind You have made digging through my attic unnecessary). This year, I went with 1979’s Daughters of Eve. It features an all-female club that, under the influence of their new adviser, begins to recognize the unfairness of the gender divide...and FURIOUSLY TAKES ACTION. The cover art suggests the spookily paranormal. Strangely, not so much. It’s scary, all right, but less bump-in-the-night and more Stepford Wives-minus-the-robots.
Unlike most Duncan books, there’s no easily identifiable heroine. Rather, the focus shifts from one character to the next, from the girls to their adviser, from boyfriends to parents. Unfortunately, that doesn’t allow for much character development. From beginning to end, Bambi is sassy, smart and self-confident; Laura is desperate for acceptance; and Jane’s father is a complete bastard. Change that occurs tends toward the sudden and drastic—after her parents’ split, the previously well-adjusted Kelly transforms into Bitterness Personified literally overnight.
Irene Stark, the club adviser, is introduced as a knowledgeable, sympathetic character. Her early arguments are not only persuasive, but fair and right, but her crazy ramps up over time, so some of the girls never even notice when they head over to the Dark Side. Irene uses her influence like a cult leader—she manipulates them, inspiring them to seek revenge immediately, without pausing to see if the wrongs are actually wrongs, and encourages them to assume that all males are evil and untrustworthy.
That isn’t to say that there’s no provocation—even without Irene’s issues, most of the male residents of Modesta, Mich., are complete asshats. Ruth Grange’s2 father won’t let her participate in after-school activities because she’s needed at home. Her older brothers—Peter (“Girls are like computers,” he says. “Feed in the right material at the right time and, click!, you get back what you want.”) and Niles the attempted rapist—flatly refuse to help, because they “aren’t about to go into training to become housewives.” Mr. Grange supports them, even when Mrs. Grange points out the hypocrisy:
“What Ruthie said was true, George; Peter and Niles don’t lift a hand to help out. She was right when she said that it isn’t fair. It’s not fair.”
“What’s unfair about it?” Mr. Grange asked impatiently. “Peter and Niles are boys. You can’t expect them to put on aprons and flit around polishing the furniture. I didn’t do that when I was a boy, and God help anybody who had suggested it.”
The Grange men aren’t even the worst. Poor Jane has a wife beater for a father—a wife beater who thinks that the Daughters of Eve might be a Communist plot.
Yes, the term “Commies” is used. There are also references to the Korean War, Prell shampoo, LPs, John Denver and the Jitterbug. Feminism is viewed with skepticism and condescension at best, and homosexuality is explained as “a hormone thing that gets out of balance.” Well, that’s the nice take on it, courtesy of Mrs. Grange. Mr. Grange’s take involves filicide and suicide.
I’ll give you a moment to digest that.
Despite those specifics, most of the book is less dated than you’d think—all the story lines mashed together into one book is a bit much, but any one of them would work in a contemporary novel. (Depressing? Yes.)
Despite buckets of melodrama (and let’s be honest—sometimes buckets of melodrama is what we want), despite being populated with straw men and characters who are less than three dimensional, despite the occasional misstep into Preachy Territory, Daughters of Eve is still a decent read. Duncan balances the jerks out with the decent guys, shows that the world can be unfair, and the difference between fighting injustice and perpetuating it. Dated, yes, but still capable of opening eyes, provoking thoughts and causing a serious case of the creeps.
I do wish Jane had gotten away with braining her father with the frying pan though.
1Due to the Columbine massacre, the release of Killing Mr. Griffin was delayed and the 1999 movie was renamed Teaching Mrs. Tingle.
2Ruth falls into a classic ’80s archetype, the daughter who is expected to be a live-in babysitter and maid. Unpaid naturally.
When Leila Roy is able to take time away from battling monster zucchinis in her garden, she's probably either working at the library, writing Bookshelves of Doom or reading. Check out her blog at bookshelvesofdoom.blogs.com.