Thursday, February 7, 2019

The Possessions - Sara Flannery Murphy

At the risk of sounding like a cooking blog writer, I'm going to start this entry with a personal and only vaguely related anecdote.  When I was an impressionable youth attending a liberal arts college at the tender age of 18, I had the brilliant and economically sensible idea of taking a course in Canadian women's literature.  I think it was supposed to be my fun elective, since I liked reading and had already proved the semester before that I was terrible at art.  I don't remember much about the individual books that I read, but I do remember that the overarching theme of the class seemed to be women aged 21-35 who had a lot of issues surrounding fertility and motherhood.  Every book had some brooding heroine who liked to hang around water and dream about babies.  At 18, this was unfathomable to me.  Having had the mantra of "DON'T GET PREGNANT" drilled into my head from all directions from 6th grade onward, the idea that at some point people actually tried to get pregnant on purpose seemed false.  I thought to myself that hanging around water and imaging the lake as my uterus wasn't going to make me want a baby anytime soon, and also that it was fairly unhygienic.  Maybe the water or the babies were metaphors, I don't really know.  I was 18 and had moved from one farm town to another even more farmey town, so I knew nothing at all.  

The Possessions is not written by a Canadian author, but it does feature water, brooding, dreams, and babies.  I loved the premise right off the bat.  The setting is almost recognizable as our own modern day world, but with slightly less reliance on technology.  The main character is a medium, and her job is to channel the dead for her grieving clients.  No one seems to think this is quackery, and the entire process is facilitated by a drug called "lotus."

At first this seemed to be a mostly gothic story with slow pacing, but with the plot of a murder mystery. One of the rules the mediums and clients are supposed to adhere to is that they're not to channel people who've died by suicide or violent means, The main danger appears to be that the spirits might come through with a desire to hurt their host bodies, or they might just take over permanantly. 

Our main character, Edie, has been working this job for about five years and appears to have no real life of her own outside of the lives she lives for her clients.  It's obvious from the first chapter that there's a Big Dark Secret Past she's hiding from, and I was very excited to learn why someone else would choose to spend their entire lives blacking out and letting dead people use their bodies.  It would be a different story if the medium could experience the spirits' lives during the sessions, but in this story the medium disappears entirely while the encounters are taking place, and if they do remember anything of their spirit visitors, it's usually a pretty bad sign.

Naturally, Edie starts having hallucinations and dreams almost as soon as she channels her handsome, mysterious client's dead wife.  The wife is said to have drowned as part of an accident, but Edie is smart enough to realize almost immediately that there's got to be a lot more to this story.

Let's go to spoiler town here, so I can can get to my outragey rant.  The dead woman (Sylvia) was clearly not the innocent drowing victim she appeared to be, and the husband (Patrick) was less than forthcoming with the society of mediums when he told them why he had to contact his wife.  There's a whole sequence of Sylvia taking over Edie's body without the aid of the lotus, and soon Edie is channeling the wife in an effort to build a relationship with the husband, Patrick. This is like a love triangle gone competely bonkers.  Is Edie really in love with Patrick, or is is it the dead wife living through her body?  Was Sylvia having an affair?  Was her death an accident?

Both.  Yes.  Maybe but probably not?
Sylvia turns out to be living a double life, and she attempts to break up her lover's marriage when she finds out his wife is having a baby.  Sylvia has come back through Edie to seek her revenge from beyond the grave.  Because, surprise, she's not just pissed that her lover has dumped her for his pregnant wife.  Sylvia ALSO has baby fever. Of course she does.  
And guess what?  Edie has baby fever, too!  What are the odds?  
I had to google the author to see if I'd accidentally stumbled across my old nemesis, Canadian Womens' Lit again. Surprised to find the author is from Little Rock, I briefly entertained the idea that SHE was the real medium, channeling an author from the Great White North.

Naturally, Sylvia's former lover decides to crack the seal on Edie's secret life in order to separate her (and Sylvia) from Patrick.  Revenge for revenge!  This novel goes from gothic thriller to Lifetime Original in about two chapters. To redeem this, I needed Edie's deep, dark, secret past to be something terrible.  Something grotesque.  Some kind of plot twist.  Anything other than....

Edie, suffering from severe depression, had accidentally miscarried months after a suicide attempt, and it was unclear if the suicide attempt was the cause of the miscarriage.  No evidence.  So naturally she was given the treatment she needed and appropriate counseling.  

Hahahahahaha!   Because this book is just a little dystopian future, not one person offered comfort or sympathy for Edie and her mental health.  No, she was pretty much just reviled, blamed, and chased from her former life for "murdering" a baby.  She was arrested and almost charged with murder.  
Patrick finds this out and leaves her.  Rather than telling him to go jump in the lake and drown like his dead wife, she APOLOGIZES to him.  

It gets worse.  Patrick accuses her of lying to him, and of keeping a secret life from him.  Yes.  The man who lied about his dead wife's violent death despite knowing of the risk to the medium, the same man who seduced the medium and had sex with her as both herself AND his dead wife, that man is mad that she  didn't prostrate herself at his feet and weep tears of forgivensss for having 1. clinical depression and 2. a very common type of miscarriage.  An illness and miscarriage that happened before he met her, and which had nothing to do with him.

When. Did. This. Become. Atwood?  I signed on for a thriller!

I realize that the author was probably going for feminist outrage here, understanding that it's far more terrifying that ghosts who need drugs to take over the living.  Women face this kind of horrible puritanical fetus worship constantly.  In real life, women are seen as little more than host bodies to channel the unborn.  Much like Edie is little more than a host body to channel the dead relatives of her clients. If I were back in freshman English, I'd be high-fiving myself as I typed that last sentence. Of course Patrick is a trash bag, and almost all of the men in this novel turn out to be garbage humans.  Sylvia, still lurking and occasionally possessing Edie, knows that Edie is now pregnant with Patrick's child.  And Sylvia, who also wanted Patrick's child, uses her ghostey powers to protect Edie from her illness so that they can have the baby.  

There's a strong thread of sisterhood running through this book.  The mediums and the most complex characters are women.  The few male characters are either horrible, or barely described at all.  Throughout the novel women are helping each other survive in what seems to be a tough economy.  In the few instances where it seems like a man may be coming to resuce one of the female characters in some way, he fails spectacularly.  There's also a thin murder mystery thread separate from the Sylvia/Patrick story that turns out to be one of those moral grey areas when we finally discover who did it and why.    

This book also feels like it's a commentary about how women give so much of themselves to help others.  Not just as mothers, but for other people in general.  Even as Edie is planning to run away with Patrick and have his baby while also channeling his dead wife for his sexual pleasure, she feels guilty that she's letting her other clients down by not allowing them to use her body anymore.  In the end, Edie realizes she's only happy when she's giving herself to others.  And this is...good?  Good that she's happy?  Messed up that her sense of self is entirely dependent on her giving up all of her autonamy for others?  Is this supposed to be a compromise?  

The good:  I loved the writing and the tone, and I like that it didn't end with some trite love story.  It ends with a woman starting a successful life on her own tems, if by "on her own terms" you mean that she's still sharing her body with another woman.  

The bad:  I just don't know that I can forgive the fact that the murders of the grown women in the book seemed less dramatic in the end than the (accidental) miscarriage.  For that kind of build up, I'd been hoping for a Psycho style ending, with her keeping Sylvia's bones in her living room or something.  The Atwood style ending wasn't what I was expecting from the creepy start of the novel. 

When you've braced yourself for almost supernatural horror, it's hard to reconcile a social commentary ending.  

I rarely find myself so conflicted about a book, which is why I wanted to write about it.  I both loved and hated parts of this story, and I'm still thinking of it a few weeks later.  I suspect this is the mark of good writing, and my reaction to it was probably what my literature professor was going for all those years ago. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Devil Wears Prada - Lauren Weisberger

I know this post is about 16 years too late, but sometimes it's fun to go back and re-read something that you've already read, just to get a fresh perspective.  So what was my first thought upon my re-reading (well, re-listening) to this book?  TEXTING.  That's right, this book, which is so centered on a woman who is basically glued to her cell phone, was written in the days before texting was widely popular and available.  So many of her interpersonal problems could have been resolved if she'd possessed a smartphone.  I think I'm getting ahead of myself here.

The Devil Wears Prada is rumored to be loosely about Anna Wintour and the demands she placed on her assistants at Vogue.  I'm not sure if this is true or not, and it doesn't matter, since the personalities involved would have had to be embellished enough that no one ended up being sued for defamation. Or maybe not - I know I've worked for some wackadoos, and I certainly recognize a lot of the behavior demonstrated by antagonist Miranda Priestly.  Sometimes people get so used to having their asses kissed that they forget it's because the people doing the kissing WANT something from them.  I want to shake those people and shout "you're not special, you just have firing authority!"  Which of course I won't do, because I do not have firing authority.

I don't think this is a hot take, and it's certainly not a snappy one because I've consumed two of Costo's finest house brand night time sinus pills and I feel like I'm typing through a soft layer of cotton balls.  I'm on the fence about whether this medication actually relieves sinus pressure, or whether it just makes me kind of soft and foggy and occasionally weepy with just the tiniest sharp edge of paranoia so that I don't notice it anymore.  This may be a just me thing, but last time I took these pills I ended up noticing that one of my dogs had more grey on his muzzle than I'm used to seeing.  This alarmed me enoumously, and I sobbed about the relentless and merciless freight train of time for about two hours.  I group texted my girlfriends and called my boyfriend and was an emotional disaster until I ended up crawling into bed and snuggling my grey boi, who was decidedly not pleased with my sweaty cuddling since I'm what is known politely as a "hot sleeper."  You'd think I'd have thrown the medication away, but I don't like wasting money and I still have most of a bulk case left so here we are!  Hot mess express!

Anyway, not a fresh or particularly sharp take on this book, but here are my thoughts:
1.  Everything seems dramatic at 23.  Andy, our heroine, agrees to take on an insanely demanding job for a woman who is, to use today's favorite unprofessional pop sych terminology, a narcississtic sociopath.  I realize that was the longest sentence in the world.  I'm also not going to go back and spell check that, because in my head I started to type Mississippi and I just went with it because it felt fun!  THANKS, KIRKLAND COLD & FLU.  She's lead to believe that if she can stick out this absolutely horrific job for a year,  she'll get a reference to work anywhere she wants.  She has dreams of going to The New Yorker, and this will save her years of work and is an almost guaranteed job.  I think this is a pretty mature decision for 23, and she went into it with a great attitude.  Unfortunately, because she's 23, she's not yet emotionally equipped to handle confrontation.  Instead of rolling her eyes and knowing that it's temporary, as people keep telling her to do, Andy lets it eat away at her and feels herself morally superior.  Listen, Andy.  You're the one using someone you hate to get a job you want.  It's a business decision.  Treat it as such. 

2.  Andy's friends are dicks.  She tells them repeatedly, and specifically, that she is on-call 24/7.  Her boss is insane, she's not allowed to have a personal life, she's going to have to cancel plans, she's going to be too exhausted to do things.  Her friends, boyfriend, and family all refuse to believe her.  They assume she's exaggerating because she works in fashion, which they consider frivolous.  This leads to Andy, who isn't good at confrontation or boundaries (see #1), to go on guilt trips that make her even more passive aggressive and bitter at work.  Listen.  If someone in your life expresses the reasons why their life is hard?  BELIEVE THEM.  It doesn't matter if you think you have it worse.  It doesn't matter if you think the reasons their life is hard are stupid.  This isn't the struggle Olympics.  Her boyfriend gets a special place in boyfriend jail for being annoyed that she can't have phone conversations in the middle of the day, and for not caring about her boundaries because he feels his job teaching is more important than her job assisting someone who's running a large sector of the local economy.  He's pretentious and self important, Andy.  Dump. His. Ass.

3.  Andy's internatlized guilt makes her blame herself when her best friend Lillie, who is struggling with depression, downward spirals.  She blames herself for not being there for her friend and she feels like she could somehow have prevented the incident that follows.  In re-reading this book, I call shenanigans.  Despite being busy, Andy still regularly sees her friends and boyfriend.  She shares an apartment Lillie in the second half.  No, they're not spending all weekend together, but she's there.  She even brings up Lillie's self destructive behavior and asks if she needs help. Lillie brushes all of this off, and blames Andy for not being "supportive," while at the same time criticizing how seriously Andy takes her job - the temporary job that Andy has made clear is going to land her a fantastic career for the rest of her life.  Yeah, Andy, I don't think you're the problem.  Also, serious note, if someone you love is struggling with depression, you can be supportive and listen and try to help all you want, but it won't cure the condition.  You can't good-listener someone out of depression, and you can't force them into therapy.  Sometimes the closer you are to them, the harder they push you away.  It's not the popular thing people want to hear, but it's true.  Andy is 100% not at fault for Lillie's issues, and Lillie isn't either.  It was a crappy situation for everyone.

4.  Just like you can't cure a friend with depression, you're not going to passive-aggressive your boss out of being demon spawn.  Sure, you may present your boss with a clock or calendar and try to explain the concept of linear time to them, or you may try to explaint that you're not a mind reader.  They really don't care.  They just don't.  You can have one or two conversations about managing expectations right off the bat, but if it doesn't take at the start it's never going to happen.  You're either going to have to live with it or move on.  In Andy's case, she didn't quite make it the full term but it didn't really hurt her in the end.  There's a very fictional quitting moment that reads as pure fantasy, as though all of us collectively walked out of all our worst jobs.  She lands on her feet - not really a spoiler, since she's from a well off family in Connecticut.  The Andys of the world always land on their feet. 

If this book had been written today, Andy would have had a calendar and her email right at her fingertips.   Instead of her needy boyfriend dumping her because she couldn't make personal calls in the afternoon with her boss in the next room, Andy could have just texted or sent him a quick emoji here and there.  She could have vented her rage on Twitter instead of internalizing it and suffering all kinds of mental anguish.  She could have handled many of the communications issues much more quickly and efficiently.  Of course, I can also argue that if her needy boyfriend didn't respect the difficulties of her job in the first place, she should have just dumped the boyfriend in chapter four. 

I'm also much less interested in fashion than I was when this first came out.  I've been listening this book and its descriptions of late 90s/early 2000s clothing in the background while I do domestic chores in a pair of men's sweapants that I've custom cut up to fit just the way I like. The secret is to remove the elastic at the ankles so that the pants can lay flat over the top of  your slippers.

This was a fun, light re-read now that I'm older and have more experience with with workplace.  I don't know that I would have had the guts to stick it out as long as Andy did, because at 36 I have something that Andy did not have at 23:  cynicism.  Andy took it for granted that she'd get her dream job in the end.  I wouldn't have trusted a boss that awful to do anything as beneficial as writing a reference. 

Until next time, readers, I leave you with these words of wisdom:  every boss will be terrible at some point in your career.  And if she's really terrible, you can write a tell all book and sell the movie rights.