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A SHORT HISTORY OF WOMEN by Kate Walbert

A SHORT HISTORY OF WOMEN

By Kate Walbert

Pub Date: June 16th, 2009
ISBN: 978-1-4165-9498-7
Publisher: Scribner

Five generations of willful, restless women struggle to find an identity beyond that of wife and mother.

Dorothy Trevor Townsend bequeathes one heck of a legacy when she dies at age 34 in 1914. The British suffragette starves herself to death as an act of civil disobedience, leaving behind two fatherless children and a married lover. Her act is doubly shocking, occurring as it does during the carnage of World War I. Dorothy’s son Thomas ends up with family friends in California, becomes a musician and dies young of alcoholism. Daughter Evelyn endures wartime deprivations at boarding school before finding her way to America as well. She becomes a well-known chemistry professor at Barnard, eschewing traditional attachments and family life. Thomas’s daughter, Dorothy Townsend Barrett, takes a different route, marrying and producing three children, only to realize in her 70s that she has always been miserable. So she protests the Iraq war, divorces her devoted husband Charles and starts a blog, to the horror of her responsible eldest daughter Caroline. With an empty nest and a divorce of her own, Caroline is stunned to recognize the role that fear has played in her life. Caroline’s sister Liz, like the others, has talent and brains, but late motherhood and a busy, privileged life in Manhattan have made her question what it all means. When Liz was a child, she slipped into her mother’s purse a verse she’d written that contained the line “I am a hollow bone.” It resonates throughout the lives of all these women: “It’s as if I echo, or rather, feel in myself an absence,” says Dorothy Barrett. “I feel as if I’ve forgotten something, as if there’s a question I forgot to answer.” Walbert (Our Kind, 2004, etc.) is careful to give equal weight to their challenges through different eras. The male characters are not as fully fleshed out as they could be, but Charles’ longing for the wife he never really had is quite moving.

Daring and devastating: 20th-century history made personal.