While I was reading The Bell Jar I frequently found myself reminded of Save Me The Waltz. There are a lot of parallels between the two: both are semi-autobiographical novels written by talented women married to more famous literary men (in this instance the poet Ted Hughes), and both deal with the tragedy of mental illness. Fortunately, The Bell Jar is by far the easier of the two to read, and arguably the story is more interesting.
I have never read a book that I’ve understood less than The Female Man. To the extent that I don’t feel as though I can justifiably give it a rating. You might say that if I didn’t understand it, and therefore most likely didn’t enjoy it, I should give it a low rating, but the thing is that when I could tell what was going on, I was enjoying it, but unfortunately these flashes of clarity were only flashes.
According to the blurb, The Female Man tells the story of four women (who are in fact the same woman) from alternate universes; one that’s basically ours, one where WW2 never happened and the depression never finished, resulting in an even more unbalanced society, a futuristic one where there are no men, and one where men and women are in a constant state of actual war. As far as I can tell, the story is essentially the story of these women visiting each of these worlds in turn. However, I’m a bit hazy, because the novel is split into a number of different chapters, each narrated in the first person and which is often very unclear which of the four women is speaking, making it incredibly difficult to follow.
However, I think that more of a problem is the way things have changed since Russ was writing. She was one of the pioneers of feminist Science Fiction in the 1960s, and a particularly experimental one at that;The Female Man owes a lot to the Many Worlds Theory, which was a relatively new concept at the time of writing (and one formulated by the father of another of the authors I’ve read this year). Nowadays though, Sci-fi seems to have normalised somewhat, at least as far as I’ve come across, so I’m just not used to this level of complexity in my fiction. Or maybe I’m making excuses for myself?
I did want to like the Female Man, but despite trying very hard, it was far too complex a book for me to understand.