The writer Rachel Cusk opens her 2009 essay “Shakespeare’s Daughters” by asking, “Can we … identify something that could be called ‘women’s writing’?” What Cusk seeks is “not simply a literature made by women but one that arises out of, and is shaped by, a set of specifically female conditions.” Why, she asks, don’t more women writers strive to describe the frustrations and limitations of life under patriarchy, which, “being a type of relationship, can never be resolved, only reconfigured”? Why not write “the book of repetition,” with female characters kept in place by social and perhaps biological constraints?
Cusk suggests that male-dominated literary culture may discourage such work. She notes, too, that it is “pleasanter”—more exciting, more fun—to tell stories in which characters and their circumstances change than to write stories of monotony. These concerns have not vanished since 2009, and yet the intervening decade has seen a proliferation of novels that might answer Cusk’s description of women’s writing: Cusk’s own Outline trilogy, Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends. These novels use repetition in two ways: They are cyclical in structure, and they have protagonists prone to mirroring both the people around them and their own past selves. The results are aching portraits of entrapment, and have resonated strongly with readers. Still, by design, they offer little hope. Of course, not all writers aspire to model progress; nor do all readers seek such models. But for some, the pure “book of repetition” may prove less appealing than the hybrid approach two recent novels have taken. Scarlett Thomas’s Oligarchy and Clare Beams’s The Illness Lesson first use a Cusk-like method to depict women’s subjugation, then turn, in their last act, toward change.
Stylistically, the two novels are near opposites. Thomas sets Oligarchy in contemporary England and writes in snappy prose, while Beams locates The Illness Lesson in 1800s Massachusetts and expertly blends 19th-century and modern diction. But both are set at all-girls boarding schools, which prove fertile settings for exploring patriarchal authority. Both books see male headmasters strive to mold and constrain their female students, who are far more interested in imitating one another than in pleasing men. This behavior turns into illnesses that set off identical, frightening feedback loops: The sicker the girls get, the more vulnerable to male predation they become.