The Gallery of Vanished Husbands

The Gallery of Vanished Husbands (Natasha Solomons)

“Looking at the three abashed faces, Juliet felt more tired than cross. She supposed they all thought she was square because she didn’t talk about sex, sex, sex. Maybe she was frigid—it had been so long since George that perhaps she’d caught it through enforced celibacy. Celibate. Such an ugly smug word. Everybody else was busy doing it. The boys declared that they did it all the time, with girls, with boys, with themselves and had absolutely no qualms in discussing sex endlessly in her presence. And now the studio was absolutely chock-full of young people eyeing each other up, wondering who to pick to do it with later. Even the Chislehurst crowd did it from time to time. They might not talk about it, but she suspected that Mr and Mrs Nature found time between lokshen puddings to do it. After all everyone did it. Except her” (153).

In the spirit of gynoary (and because this book is worthy), let’s talk about The Gallery of Vanished Husbands!

Often these days (usually after encountering some or other clickbait thinkpiece), I worry about my powers of concentration. (Have smart phones ruined my brain? Am I locked in a cycle of Facebook-Tumblr-email-repeat? Will I ever form a coherent sentence again? Can I ever finish this blog post?) Novels like Gallery, though, soothe my troubled spirit: I didn’t move for four hours, reading it all, start to finish. This wonderful novel is a fantastic portrait of the life of Juliet Montague (yes), a young Jewish woman in London in 1958 who, on her thirtieth birthday, spends the money intended for a refrigerator to commission a portrait of herself. This impromptu decision sets the course for the rest of Juliet’s life, as over the years she befriends a group of young painters, opens her own gallery, raises her children alone, takes a lover (le gasp!), and slowly fills her home with portraits.

A lovely novel, through and through, but one scene (if I had to pick) does stand out (and is quoted at this top of this post): Impressed and mildly intimidated by the beautiful women of London’s art circles, and in an attempt to join their in-crowd, Juliet perms her hair. The result is a disaster, for “[t]he perm transformed women into chic sophisticates, but Juliet is one of them” (150). To avoid “sitting in the loo and succumbing to tears” (150), she goes to the gallery, seeking support from her friends, only to find that the boys have been holding life-drawing classes without her, afraid of shocking her sensibilities. Juliet’s embarrassment, her frustration that her friends think of her as a “maiden aunt” (152), are expertly drawn—A perfect rendition of the awkward sadness of the outsider.

If you liked this, check out:

  • The Innocent Traveller (Ethel Wilson)


Fangirl (Rainbow Rowell)

For readers 13 years and up

“Professor Piper was always telling them to write about something close to their hearts, and there was nothing closer to Cath’s heart than Baz and Simon” (110).

I was delighted to discover Rainbow Rowell’s 2013 novel, Fangirl, which also offers two-for-the-price-of-one woman power: written by Rowell, it’s illustrated by Noelle Stevenson.) In Fangirl, identical twins Cath and Wren leave home for university, but while Wren is ready to dive into new experiences (a new roommate, new friends, parties, and more), Cath is far shyer, choosing to hide in her room with a jar of peanut butter rather than face the dining hall alone and spending her evenings working on a long piece of fanfiction. Faced with family issues (an estranged mother, a father living with mental illness, and a sister who is rapidly developing an alcohol problem), new relationships (her roommate, an older undergraduate, is extroverted, if not aggressive, and Cath also develops feelings for her roommate’s best friend, Levi), and fresh academic challenges (after being accepted into an upper-level creative writing course, she struggles to develop her own writing voice and to deal with idea-leeching classmate), Cath is an intriguing and multi-faceted protagonist.

And in terms of fandom and fangirls, Fangirl has a lot to offer. Cath, a university (college) freshman, is the popular author of a well-known piece of fanfiction (based on the fictional series, Simon Snow, clearly an homage to Harry Potter), and the novel never derides her for this. Instead, we see a young women with creativity, passion, and follow-through (one smart and capable enough to enter an upper-level course in her first semester), working on a major creative project, and instead of leading Cath to abandon fandom for “the real world,” the narrative recognises the validity and emotional significance of online communities. Rather than choose between online and offline, Cath opens her mind and her heart to welcome both into her life, slowly learning that the two are not mutually exclusive and that she does not have to abandon one love to allow another. Additionally, Cath’s—spoiler—eventual boyfriend, Levi, is a kind and believable character, as is—the admittedly less well-developed—Wren’s boyfriend, Jandro. (More on these guys in a moment!) On a structural note, Rowell punctuates Fangirl with excerpts from the fictional Simon Snow series as well as Cath’s fic, an interesting moves that works surprisingly well, offering snippets of stories that are engaging on their own.

This isn’t to say, though, that Rowell is impervious to critique. (Well, who is!?) To start, Rich in Colour and Angry Girl Comics both firmly outline racism in Rowell’s other young adult novel, Eleanor and Park, as does the Tumblr fandomshatewomen, which also offers instead-of recommendations.

Returning to Fangirl, while it is strong in its defence of fandom—particularly women fans, which is wonderful, given how they are subject to disproportionate amounts of hate—and in its crackdown on subtle, sexist exploitation in the classroom (Cath’s classmate, Nick, steals her ideas and creative labour under the guise of ‘working together’), it has some awkward and uncomfortable moments as well.

  • Cath’s roommate, Reagan, who eventually becomes one of her best friends, appears intended to be humorously biting—Instead, she often comes across as mean, asking Cath if she’s “‘one of those freaky eaters'” (38), dissing Cath’s writing because “‘It’s already hard enough to make eye contact with [her]'” (48), and encouraging her friend to steal Cath’s food. Near the end of the novel, Wren points out, “She’s so mean to you” (442), which Cath denies, arguing “‘That’s just her way. I think I’m her best girl friend”” (442). No, friends: Girls and women are not supposed to cut each other down this way!
  • Additionally, despite my interest in both of their characters and my belief in the development of their relationship (both behave badly in the beginning, but their behaviour is more attributable to awkwardness and social anxiety than anything else, and both are apologetic), I was uncomfortable, occasionally, with Cath’s treatment of Levi, who has a reading disability. Cath wonders whether she can happy be with someone who can’t read. Fair enough, but only because nasty thoughts like this are—alas—not uncommon: The truth of one’s character is in how we recognise and deal with them, and Cath—to me—didn’t address this thoughtfully enough. Instead, Rowell works overtime to convince us that Levi is still cool, smart, and desirable even though he can’t read well, instead of removing his disability from consideration in any assessment of his value as a person. (Do you see what I mean? A person is not a good person even though they are disabled; they are a good person—or not—and disabled.) (I welcome commentary or corrections in terminology from readers more knowledgeable in this area!)

In subtle, sneaky ways like this—sniping girl friendships, casual ableism, and casual rape culture, as when Levi insists on picking Cath up from the library each night, ostensibly to protect her though she doesn’t want him to—some problematic stuff sneaks into Fangirl. While I was genuinely into the plot and respected—and enjoyed—the novel’s loving and accurate portrayal of women in fandom, was intrigued by its portrait of life with a mentally ill parent (that’s something I can’t speak to!), and appreciated the relationship between Cath and her sister as well as the growth of attraction and love between Cath and Levi, I think it’s important to recognise these things as well. I wonder if Rowell has been asked about these things before!


If you liked this and/or instead of this, check out:

Tam Lin

Today, let’s take a look at two very different adaptations of the Tam Lin story, an 18th-century Scottish ballad about a man in thrall to the Fairy Queen and his rescuer, Jenny, the woman who loves him.

An Earthly Knight (Janet McNaughton)

For readers 13 years and up

“We are not only seeking a bride for a powerful earl. We may be looking for the queen of Scotland.” 

In 12th-century Scotland, sixteen-year-old Jenny navigates her father’s matchmaking (between herself and a much older man), an older sister who won’t speak, and a growing relationship with the unusual Tam Lin, a boy who lives in a ruined house in the forest.

Before I read An Earthly Knight, I had only come across McNaughton’s science fiction—The Secret Under My Skin and The Raintree Rebellion—but I soon found that she handles historical fiction equally well. Her adaptation of Tam Lin is faithful to its sources, but it’s also original and bright, particularly strong in the relationship between Jenny and her older—and disgraced—sister, Isabel.

Fire and Hemlock (Dianna Wynne Jones)

For readers 13 years and up

“‘Oh nothing. Only one of the famous Lynn postcards,’ Polly said bitterly. ‘I hope he treads on his cello.’”

In 1980s England, 19-year-old Polly is packing for university when a picture on her grandmother’s wall triggers a series of memories—As she tries to piece her fragmented memories together, she recalls a man named Thomas Lynn, a faithful friend who has somehow been erased from her life.

Fire and Hemlock is one of my top favourite Jones novels—it’s superbly clever, and Polly is a fantastic character. As the 19-year-old Polly tries to rebuild her memories to find out both what’s happened to Thomas Lynn and why she’s forgotten, we are treated to the story of her life from the age of ten onward. Polly’s personal story—an English girl with two selfish, oblivious parents (but a wonderful grandmother), growing up in 1980s England—is braided into a separate fantastical side, where the stories that Polly and Thomas make up for fun start coming true and the powerful Laurel haunts their relationship.

I’ll admit that, even after all these years, I still don’t fully understand the novel’s ending, but all the same—Fire and Hemlock is not to be missed.

If you liked these, check out:

* Edit 4 Nov 2012 *

Reading Diana Wynne Jones’s autobiography, I wonder if Polly’s granny wasn’t closely modeled on her own:

As time went on, my parents had less and less time for us. We never went on holiday with them. When they took their yearly holiday, we were left with the gardener, the minister of the chapel, or the matron of the orphanage – or simply dumped on Granny. Granny was truly marvelous, five feet of Yorkshire common sense, love, and superstition. She was always saying wise things. I remember, among many sayings, when one time she had given me a particularly good present, she said, “No, it’s not generous. Being generous is giving something that’s entire hard to give.” She was so superstitious that she kept a set of worthless china to break when she happened to break something good, on the grounds that breakages always came in threes and it was as well to get it over. I would have been lost without Granny, that I know.


Feeling Sorry For Celia

Feeling Sorry For Celia (Jaclyn Moriarty)

For readers 13 years and up

“I went for a run over to her place and Mrs. Buckley says she climbed out of her bedroom window last night and disappeared again. Mrs. Buckley said she heard her climbing out the window because she fell on top of Benjamin’s drum kit which he has in the garden so that he can practice by moonlight. But Mrs. Buckley pretended not to hear. She says we should all just breathe in and out and stop stressing, and leave Celia to figure out Celia’s own thing.”

Feeling Sorry For Celia—Australian writer Jaclyn Moriarty’s first novel—is the story of aspiring long-distance runner, Elizabeth; her flighty, free-spirited best friend, the eponymous Celia; and her new penpal, Christina, plus their friends, boyfriends, crushes, teachers, parents, and siblings. When Elizabeth’s story opens, though, Celia has run away from home (again) to “find herself,” her estranged father has moved back to the neighbourhood, and her teacher insists that she join the school’s new penpal program—and she’s got a marathon to train for. What’s a girl to do?

Here’s the interesting bit: This novel is written entirely in letters (like, some of you may remember, PS Longer Letter Later by Paula Danziger and Ann M. Martin). Rather than relying on that same old regular back-and-forth, though, Celia really kicks the epistolary novel up a notch. Elizabeth and her friends send letters and postcards (to, as her teacher says, “rekindle the joy of the envelope”), post Smarties and blades of grass through the mail, hand-deliver notes via younger sibling couriers, communicate through Post-Its left on the fridge, and collect anonymous messages from secret admirers. On top of all that, Moriarty livens things up with letters between Elizabeth and such illustrious (and imaginary) organizations as “Society of Amateur Detectives,” “The Association of Teenagers,” and “The Secret and Mysterious Association of All that Is Secret and Mysterious.”

Celia doesn’t shy away from the serious—teenage runaways, the ups and downs of best friends, crushes and pregnancy scares, school assignments you just don’t want to do, divorced parents, and the plain old disappointment of being denied what you want—but Elizabeth is a trooper. Though she isn’t perfect (and thank goodness for that, because who is?), she’s always someone to cheer for.

If you liked it, check out:

  • Angus, Thongs, and Full Frontal Snogging (Louise Rennison);
  • My Life Is A Toilet (Gretel Killeen); and/or
  • Dahling, If You Luv Me, Would You Please, Please Smile? (Rukhsana Khan)

Pick up a pen!

  • Try writing of a story of your own in letter form, sticking with the traditional letter, or trying something different—emails, text messages, journal entries, classified ads, wanted posters, advice columns, you name it!