I came of age without a literary soulmate. Growing up, I read every book recommended to me. Nick Carraway's lucid account of the 1920's seduced me. Huck Finn's journey up the river showed me the close link between maturity and youth, and Ray Bradbury taught me to be wary of big government as well as the burning temperature of paper. While the male characters of literature built countries, waged wars, and traveled while smoking plenty of illicit substances, the women were utterly boring.
The assigned, award-winning, cannon-qualified books about women were about women I didn't want to be. Jane Eyre was too blinded by her love for Mr. Rochester, as were all of the Bennet sisters in Pride and Prejudice. Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter was too maternal, and no one wants to grow up to be Anna Karenina. These women wanted to get married and have kids. They wanted to whine for 300 pages about a man who didn't want to be with them. They wanted, it seemed, to be supporting actresses in their own stories. Their stories were equally about the men who shaped them as what they themselves wanted.
These female characters had love stories of heartbreak, but no stories of solitary self-discovery. Like many young adults, I didn't necessarily want stable. I wanted to drive On The Road and stop off in small towns and drink more than was probably appropriate. I wanted to question who I was and be my own Catcher in the Rye. There are no Jack Kerouacs or Holden Caulfields for girls. Literary girls don't take road-trips to find themselves; they take trips to find men.
"Great" books, as defined by the Western canon, didn't contain female protagonists I could admire. In fact, they barely contained female protagonists at all. Of the 100 Best Novels compiled by Modern Library, only nine have women in the leading role, and in only one of those books--The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark--do the leading women strive to do more than find a husband or raise their children. Statistically, one percent of the Best Novels are about women doing something other than loving.
To be clear, I love a beautifully told love story. I cry during The Notebook and love Mr. Darcy. I'd just as soon advocate for the banning of metaphors as I would for the banning of stories about love (which is to say never). Love stories are needed because they mirror real life. Men and women alike search for and find partners--be they for a moment or a lifetime. Love stories are huge plot lines in real life, but they aren't everything.
These days, most women develop personal lives before love lives. They struggle, make decisions, and grow up long before they worry about finding a life partner. Women are getting married later with the average marrying age at 27 according to the most recent Pew Report. That's four years older than in 1990. Additionally, women's roles in the workforce have changed radically in the last 50 years. Though incomes between men and women still remain unequal, more women are joining and staying in the workforce, even after they have kids. Their literary counterparts, however, don't reflect that.
Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping is different. Housekeeping was the first book I ever read about women that didn't feature a love line. There is no love interest, no sex, and no important man in Housekeeping. It is a book solely about growing up, because that in itself is a story.
Housekeeping follows the lives of two sisters, Ruth and Lucille, who are moved to the beautifully desolate Fingerbone, Idaho to live with family members after their mother's death. Their guardianship changes several times before finally ending with their Aunt Sylvie, an eccentric woman who lives a transient lifestyle and eventually drives the girls apart.
Ruth grows up in the book. As the narrator, she describes her own frustrations and confusions. Robinson's book is full of Ruth's anguish and loneliness: the suffering of transitory adulthood. At times the novel is as barren and icy as the frozen lake it is set around. The characters often ignore each other and sometimes themselves. As Ruth and Lucille are forced to cope with the death of their relatives, they must learn to live their own lives. Ultimately, Housekeeping isn't an easy book to read, and it doesn't wrap up neatly. Life doesn't wrap up neatly.
There is no love plotline in Housekeeping, because not every story needs one. No one expects Holden Caulfield to find love at the end of his self-explorative adventure, and we shouldn't expect every female character to either. Coming of age novels are supposed to be about finding yourself, not finding someone else. Ruth doesn't think about boys or talk about them; she grapples with loneliness and longing and losing her family, her dreams, and her sister.
Housekeeping is a rarity. There are not many books that star a woman without a man to hold her hand and guide her, or a mess of domestic tasks for her to attend to as her first priority. In the 33 years since Housekeeping's publication, few--if any--books have mirrored Robinson's example. Female protagonists like Orleanna Price of Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible or Margaret Atwood's Offred in The Handmaid's Tale, participate in political agendas, fight in wars, and generally have goals other than their love lives. Likewise, some popular fiction has begun to feature leading women with larger career goals and less focus on love. Skeeter of The Help by Kathryn Stockett chooses her career over love as do Edna Pontellier of Kate Chopin's The Awakening and even Andrea Sachs of Lauren Weisberger's The Devil Wears Prada. These women and their goals are the main thrust of these novels, but they all include a love subplot.
Even critically acclaimed books with strong female protagonists like Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones contain more male characters than female. A book about women that isn't a book about love simply isn't normal. But the plot line is. Women are increasingly pursuing careers, educations, and themselves far before they begin to pursue men, and their stories need to be told. And they have to be told well.
Statistically speaking, the publishing industry is still incredibly male-dominated. According to reports published by VIDA, an organization that explores the critical and cultural perceptions of women writers, fewer books by women than by men are published each year, and major news outlets review fewer books by women than men. Housekeeping is rarity not only because of its subject matter, but also because of its existence at all.
We need more books like Housekeeping. Books that tell tales of girls learning to be themselves the way that many girls growing up today will: alone.
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