The Group by Lara Feigel
Newly divorced, Stella knows that some in the group disapprove of her decision to have a second child when her marriage was clearly over. Priss, a stay-at-home mother at whose house the friends are meeting, seems so perfect, but bland. Kay, who’s also recently had her second baby, is very direct in her opinions, but seems to have settled for second best in tolerating her novelist husband’s infidelities and prioritising his career over hers. Helena, who writes and presents successful TV documentaries, wants a relationship but is considering co-parenting with a gay man. Polly, a consultant gynaecologist, is also wondering about having children, although that’s unlikely to happen if she continues her affair with an older married colleague.
I wouldn’t normally be drawn to a novel about a group of privileged white women, Oxford graduates in literary London, but, having read some of the author’s journalism in the Guardian, I thought I’d give it a try. And it was worth it for the quality of the writing and intelligent approach to the moral ambiguities of relationships within and between the sexes. What does it mean – and what are the taboos, if any – to be a friend, a feminist, a mother in an unequal society, a female with sexual needs?
These issues are explored through the relationships within the group and with the spouses, lovers, relatives and colleagues in these women’s lives. A running thread is their reactions to an accusation of sexual misconduct against Helena’s uncle Vince, who was like an uncle to all of them when he came to cook for them at university, and mentor to Stella at work. Their attitudes are positioned between the outright condemnation from the younger colleagues and laissez-faire outlook of their elders.
While, despite my intolerance of flawed fictional therapists, I tolerated Stella and Kay seeing the same analyst (although the inadvisability of this does get acknowledged 200 pages after it’s introduced), another possible blunder in relation to healthcare did catapult me out of the fictional world. When Polly was brought a six-year-old with an infected wound from extreme FGM, I admired how the author had woven this into the #MeToo narrative. But I felt as upset as she clearly was as I waited – and waited and waited – for her to institute child protection procedures, or explain why she’d decided not to contact social services or the police. This was only a small part of the story, but it impacted on my enjoyment of what was otherwise an impressive novel. Thanks to publishers John Murray for my advance proof copy.
Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea translated by
Rajaa Alsanea and Marilyn Booth
The women’s lives are, to this outsider, a strange concoction of restrictions and freedoms. Their families’ wealth enables Michelle to fly first class to London, where her father owns an apartment (obviously), while another is arrested by the religious police for talking to a male student at her segregated university. Having grown up with a sense of entitlement, they generally manage to work around the limitations imposed by society while accepting those that accord with their religious beliefs.
Yet their preoccupations resemble those of early adolescence more than the dawn of adulthood; one episode, with the sense that a girl who wants a boyfriend can’t be her natural self, reminding me of being a teenager looking for answers in Jackie magazine. Interestingly, although men are shown to have more options, they are equally controlled by their families in the marriage market.
First published in Beirut in 2005, the novel was written to hold up a mirror to Saudi society. However, for those of us needing a window to enlighten us, it’s rather blurry: while footnotes translate proverbs and items of dress, some assumptions remain vague. Also, I didn’t find the characters sufficiently distinct. Nevertheless, this debut from a young woman who has grown up in Riyadh, provides some insight into one part of a closed society. My copy, which I bought, came from Penguin USA.
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