There should be a sophisticated, respectful term for novels that are for and about women but that don’t belong to the cynical-singles, brand-name-plastered shop-and-shag genre often dubbed chick lit. Although both types tend to have pastel covers, the books I’m talking about (call them sisterhood lit) are like THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA’s older sibs: more mature, less brittle --- though not necessarily less fun.
Fun is an odd word to apply to Elizabeth Noble’s new work of fiction, THINGS I WANT MY DAUGHTERS TO KNOW, given the lugubrious-sounding setup. Quirky, beautiful, high-spirited Barbara contracts a terminal disease and dies, leaving Mark, her devoted second husband, and her four girls to fend for themselves. But wait. Like everything Noble writes, this novel is comfort food in book form, reassuring even when it is desperately sad. By the time you’ve spent a year in the company of Barbara’s family, you’ve laughed as well as wept, and when the characters achieve a sort of closure about their loss, so do you.
Female bonding has been Noble’s territory from her first book, THE READING CLUB, and on through THE FRIENDSHIP TEST and ALPHABET WEEKENDS (okay, in that case the main friendship is with a guy, but many of the same principles apply). Here she focuses on four sisters (shades of LITTLE WOMEN!) who exemplify the intimate joys and rivalries of an (almost) all-female household. Each struggles differently with the conundrum of how to carry on after Barbara’s death, yearning for love but also apt to run away from it.
Lisa, the eldest, has a terrific boyfriend but is suspicious of commitment. Jennifer, married but unhappy (and rather a wet blanket when we first meet her), isn’t sure that she wants to have kids --- or even that she still loves her husband. Amanda roams the world and never settles (she doesn’t even come home when Mum is dying). Will her new guy (and his deliciously portrayed family) help her restless soul find peace? And Hannah, still a teenager, tries to salve her pain with risky escapades involving an irresistible older boy.
These four points of view, plus that of the girls’ stepfather --- one of those sensitive-yet-strong males who often populate Noble’s books, proving that sisterhood can be romantic as well as powerful --- wind through THINGS I WANT MY DAUGHTERS TO KNOW like Maypole ribbons, each a different emotional color. But the presence that binds the novel together is, ironically, the person who is absent: Barbara herself. She started an informal journal when she learned she was dying, and the passages that appear throughout the book represent a legacy of grace, humor and wisdom for her girls --- as potent a gift as the diamond studs she makes sure to buy and wrap ahead of time for Hannah’s 16th birthday (that’s when the first of my many bouts of weeping began; be warned, too, that the ending is a real killer), or the gorgeous dress she leaves to Lisa.
If you’re looking for stark realism, THINGS I WANT MY DAUGHTERS TO KNOW won’t be your cup of tea (or belt of scotch). The book is more Terms of Endearment or Steel Magnolias than Wit (the unsparing play about a woman with ovarian cancer that was made into a 2001 TV movie with Emma Thompson). It’s not exactly that Noble sugarcoats the ordeal, but she does make Barbara a woman who refers to cancer treatment as “C word stuff” and sends her husband away during her chemo sessions: “This is not a spectator sport.” She’d rather focus on her happier hospital stays in the maternity ward (she describes her daughters’ births as “the four very best days of my life”). Even her death seems quiet and rather tidy, though no less heartbreaking for that.
For all her maternal exuberance, however, Barbara is not a saint. It turns out that she had secrets, some of which she didn’t divulge until after her death (an uncharacteristically cowardly decision for which her daughters both berate her and forgive her). In fact, the whole family has secrets, often of a sexual nature, and much of the plot’s tension derives from how, when and with what consequences the proverbial beans will be spilled.
Juicy, huh? Yes. The book is so eventfully and passionately alive that it doesn’t seem right to describe its subject as death. I think part of the message of THINGS I WANT MY DAUGHTERS TO KNOW is to be unafraid of both life and death --- to keep your sense of humor and your sense of proportion no matter what. It is Barbara’s voice that dominates this book, and I’ll let her have the last word. Here she is on childbirth:
“Well, I’m here to tell you, it is painful, and it is undignified. Forewarned is forearmed. If they offer you drugs, take them… If possible, lie down for all of the nine months, because for the next nine months you’ll be lucky if you get the chance to lie down at all… Oh, and about stretch marks. I have them, so the chances are you will, too. Can’t help, but I apologize for the genetic cock-up. My advice is to wear bikinis now.”
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on February 18, 2011
Things I Want My Daughters to Know