Portland, Maine, my hometown, is famous for lobster dinners, craft beer and the ubiquitous appearance of LL Bean boots, but, for those who live here, it’s equally well known as a city of readers. In this spirit I’m championing two great reads to enjoy while snuggled up next to your wood stove with a cup of tea.
My first pick is Elizabeth Strout’s new book, My Name is Lucy Barton, a practically flawless novel. My second choice is a brilliant account of growing up female in the Arab world. The book is Excellent Daughters by Katherine Zoepf, who was a freelance reporter in the Middle East for over a decade.
My Name is Lucy Barton is pure poetry in the spare resonant style with which Strout portrays the relationship between an adult daughter and her aging mother. The mystery surrounding their relationship had me fully absorbed.
Lucy, the daughter, transcended her dirt-poor, rural upbringing in Illinois to move to Manhattan where she becomes a successful writer. When she becomes hospitalized with a mysterious infection, her mother, summoned by Lucy’s husband, suddenly appears in her hospital room. She takes up residence in a chair near Lucy’s bed, refusing a cot to sleep on, insisting that when you’ve lived a life where you don’t feel safe, you learn to get by taking catnaps sitting up.
Lucy grew up in a household consumed with survival where she recalls being hungry most days. Getting by seemed to drain Lucy’s mother of maternal affection towards Lucy and her three other children. Having her mother all to herself for five days awakens in Lucy a deep maternal longing. She comes to feel her love for her mother and have it returned, although neither woman verbalizes her feelings.
Strout subtly injects a caring quality to the ordinary conversations between mother and daughter, which includes their pet names for Lucy’s nurses. I was deeply moved by this simple, haunting love story.
Excellent Daughters: The Secret Lives of Young Women Who Are Transforming the Arab World dazzled me in a different way than Lucy Barton. Zoepf pulled me in with her intimate, richly detailed portrayals of young Arab women in Saudi Arabia (which gets the most attention), Beirut, Cairo, Abu Dhabi and prewar Damascus. It helped that Zoepf was relatively young and able to speak Arabic.
Some reviewers have criticized Zoepf for making a weak case for an emerging feminism in the Arab world like citing statistics showing an increase in women attending law school in Saudi Arabia– rarely accompanied by a desire to change the system. The closest thing to a women’s movement in the Arab word is the prewar Syrian secret society for women who studied the Quran for interpretations that empowered women.
Before reading this book I hadn’t appreciated the full measure of repression that accompanies growing up female in Saudi Arabia. In addition to covering their bodies and faces with head to toe black robes and hijabs, girls are raised in sequestered areas within their homes to prevent males from seeing them. Restaurants have cordoned off areas for female patrons. When visiting a shopping mall with her family, if a young girl gets lost, she can’t call out because her voice could prove seductive. Instead she has a small bell to ring.
Every Saudi woman grows up with a male guardian, usually her father, an uncle, or older brother. When she marries, her husband assumes this role. Saudi women can’t take a step outside their homes without gaining permission from their male guardians, even for something as innocuous as visiting a friend for tea. Where an American woman would feel infantilized, the Saudi women defend male guardians as indicative of their love for her.
When a girl marries, often in her teens, her beloved female circle ends because husbands typically deny their brides permission to see their friends.
Space prevents me from reporting more on Excellent Daughters, suffice to say that the chapter on honor killings was chilling, especially the description of parties families hold after murdering a young female member who has violated their code by marrying someone of her choice or by having premarital sex.
What are your favorite winter reads?