Watching one of the early episodes of the HBO hit show Girls, it occurred to me that the time has come for a new self-help book along the lines of Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives, the controversial bestseller by Dr. Laura Schlessinger which got under the skin of so many women, for different reasons, almost a generation ago.
Gen-X women, who were coming of age when the book was first published in 1995, are now old enough to have lived the consequences of their choices and Millennial women clearly need their own compass of to steer them with class and ingenuity through the tumultuous and bruising third decade of living.
Until Lena Dunham’s own book arrives, I suggest turning instead to the world of fiction for guidance. While I admire the simplicity and lack of equivocation in Do This/Don’t Do That category of narrative advice books, there is something to be said for novels which often can be far more illuminating.
One can always rely on the classics of fiction for their timeless wisdom on matters relating to the human condition, but often contemporary commercial fiction presents choices that are not only timely and relevant, but more difficult to ignore.
As the majority of fiction readers are women, we may just as well double dip, using our love of novels to evaluate mistakes we might be making. All while we relish the guilty pleasure of watching those literary heroines make mistakes.
My favorite two novels of recent years that are unabashedly about the mistakes (and, on occasion, self-corrections) that women make are The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.
The Red Book, set in 2009 when four Harvard roommates come together for their 20-year reunion is an insightful summation of particular illusions women of my generation entertained. The eerie Gone Girl captures the pitfalls at both extremes of feminine archetypes, from the most passive to the most aggressive—real and imagined. Iconic literary characters like Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Isabel Archer, and Lily Bart are still good barometers to measuring the complicated cause and effect of the mistakes women make. Dr. Laura’s 10 Mess-ups always seemed to me like a list that was both too harsh and incomplete.
In the spirit of inviting women to take cues from the fiction they love and the light it can shine on our own bad choices, I present my Top 5 Literary Heroine Pitfalls that can teach you as much as any advice book:
#1. Don’t Pretend to Be the ‘Cool Girl’ If You Are Not. [SPOILER ALERT! IF YOU HAVEN’T FINISHED READING GONE GIRL, STOP READING NOW!] Amy Elliot Dunne, the Gone Girl, is every man’s (and woman’s) nightmare of submissiveness (however inauthentic) and rage (however real). And it all started because Amy just wanted to please or pretend to please everyone in her life from her parents and husband to her acquaintances and strangers. You just can’t keep an act going for that long, even if you are a certified psychopath.
#2. Don’t Marry Your College Sweetheart Unless You Do It After a 10- to 20-Year Pause. The Red Book features two characters who prove two contradictory ideas: 1) that it is possible to recognize your soul mate even at the age of 20, and 2) that it is a grave mistake to think you can recognize your soul mate at the age of 20, when you don’t possess the benefit of life’s experience. The author reconciles these notions artfully and with a twist. The bottom line is that if in midlife you run into the man you thought at twenty was the love of your life and a few conversations later you feel the same way, congratulate yourself for being born intuitive, patient, and wise.
#3. Don’t Be A Halfway Rebel. The iconic literary heroines I detest most are Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary. Not because they challenged the social conventions of their time and milieu by engaging in scandalous affairs, but because they opted out by way of suicide. Mary Gordon calls them ‘Dead Girls,’ the overwhelmingly male author’s impulse for dealing with heroines who can’t be reined in any way other than blunt erasure. Fortunately, they are the thing of the past in contemporary literature. Unfortunately, so are opportunities for women to be truly rebellious.
#4. Acknowledge Your Disadvantages. In literature, disadvantages can be far more glamorous and slippery than in real life where they are obvious and banal. Take, for example, the question of wealth. It was clearly a disadvantage for the poor Isabel Archer, Henry James’ beloved heroine of The Portrait of a Lady, whose money delivered her into the arms of her climber rascal husband she erroneously presumed to be her match. Or, Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart, the Dead Girl of The House of Mirth, who refused to acknowledge that her lack of money will prevent her from living the life she wants no matter how hard she works or how many suitors she rejects, thereby forfeiting any opportunity for correction.
#5. Revenge is a Dish Best . . . Not Served at All. [SPOILER ALERT! IF YOU HAVEN’T FINISHED READING GONE GIRL … STOP READING NOW!] I felt sorry for the Gone Girl whose elaborate plot to avenge her hapless husband’s infidelity and lack of character was brilliance completely wasted. For sure she accomplished her goal of plunging her husband into the iciness of eternal misery, but she ended up in the same place she was before—with him. My favorite distinctively feminine and effective revenge plot is described in Somerset Maugham’s lesser known novel Theater, which celebrates a more creative and less self destructive method for a woman to settle a few scores. The novel was adapted for screen and released in 2004 under the title Being Julia, starring my personal idol Annette Benning, not only a standout performer but a standout woman. A perfect pairing of class and ingenuity for characters real and imagined.
What literary heroine pitfall drives you nuts? Tell us in a comment!