Saturday, December 27, 2008

"Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History"

Book Review: The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry (Viking 2008, hardcover $24.95); The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell (Harcourt, Inc. 2007, paperback $14.95)

We've all heard that "well behaved women seldom make history." Well, it also seems that well behaved women seldom make good novels. On the other hand, give me a complicated, defiant woman, place her in a 19th or early 20th century novel, and you've got the foundation for a great read.

This is the case for both The Secret Scripture, a 2008 Man Booker prize nominee, and The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, now in paperback. It was just coincidental that I read the two books back to back, but I'm glad I did. They were a great fit.

These books certainly made me grateful I didn't live back then. Aside from missing i-pods and microwaves, I could have run into trouble with the apparent cultural tendency to have unconventional women committed to insane asylums against their will. Thank goodness we live in the 21st century, where spunky women can dye their hair pink and sing catchy tunes about life as a rock star. Or where opinionated women can become litigators, Senators, or stars on The View.

However, if you were a young, beautiful Irish girl of the 1800's like Roseanne McNulty in The Secret Scripture, and your only crime was to defy and alienate the parish priest, then you too could end up in a mental hospital in County Sligo until your 100th birthday. Similarly, if you were a troubled young English girl who never quite recovered from witnessing your little brother's death, rendering you a bit too quirky and "unfit" for marriage, then you could have shared the fate of Esme Lennox, who found herself in a mental hospital for 61 years.

Coincidentally, in each book, the mental hospital is scheduled to close. The hospital staff begin to search patient histories to find next of kin, and the patients themselves began to piece together their past. In each case, a fascinating story emerges about the times and events that led Esme and Roseanne to their fate.

Despite suffering decades of undeserved isolation, both Roseanne and Esme emerge from their mental hospitals with new freedom, new narratives and newly discovered relatives. Which gives hope to all the not-so-well behaved women out there, no matter what your age.

Both of these books would be terrific for book club discussions, but I really loved The Secret Scripture for the beauty of the writing and its irresistable Irishness. I'm definitely picking up Sebastian Barry's other novels.

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