I first heard of Strange Girls and Ordinary Women by Morgan McCarthy over Twitter. One day I saw several bloggers whose taste in books I trust talk about the book with the publishers and I knew I had to get my hands on a copy. So, I asked the publishers and they kindly sent me a review copy. Thank you to them and the bloggers who made me notice the book.
They say you know instinctively who to trust.
Alice is normal; she’d never do anything rash. But when she sees her husband one day with a younger girl, she knows at once that he’s having an affair. And it must be stopped.
Vic loves her friend Michael, more than he knows. He wants happiness, and thinks he’s found it with the magnetic Estella. But Vic feels sure she can’t be trusted – and she needs to make Michael see that too.
They don’t know Kaya; her life is tougher than they can imagine. But Kaya’s a survivor, and she’s determined to find a way out of her miserable world.
Three women, three lives that come crashing together in this dark, lyrical and utterly enthralling story of warped perceptions, female intuition and ‘the other woman’.
As you can see, this book was totally up my alley. Just of lately I have been craving non-crime fiction readings. Do not get me wrong, I am still passionate about crime fiction, but I wanted to read other stories and Strange Girls and Ordinary Women proved to be the perfect reading because of how it explores perception and “the other woman”. However, from a feminist point of view I would have a lot to say about the so-called “feminine intuition” when it is rather a consequence of being over-vigiliant and being taught to take care of and meet everyone’s necessities.
Strange Girls and Ordinary Women is written in divided into three parts each of them with a section devoted to each of the three characters and, each character, divided into sub-chapters. This organization makes reading easier and more addictive. I found myself reading the whole book in three sittings, because I thought the three characters’ point of view on an issue were a self-contained act and, therefore, should be read together. I also found a connection between each character and a feminist theme: Alice is suffocated by how space is constructed for women, Vic is constricted by religion and her body and Kaya is constructed by social class and society’s expectations of women belonging to that class which eventually affect Kaya’s mind. As a consequence, reading sometimes got more difficult because I could not connect with Vic and her narrative at all and it amounts to a third of the book, so I ended up seeing her as a necessary tool for the other two narratives to unfold.
I was mesmerized by Alice’s narration and her personal story. I am sure her middle-class, stay-at-home-wife-and-mom lifestyle resonates with many women who, when they were younger, thought how amazing their lives would be. But, social class restrictions are usually harder for women and even though middle (upper) class is a comfortable place to be, it is not a sane one for many women. Alice is completely shadowed by her husband, The Doctor, who also makes her feel miserable: not good enough cooking, not slim enough, not entertaining enough, etc. You know the discourse. Now that I am writing about her, she really feels like a modern Edna Pontellier, from Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. A good, but sad comparison taking into account Chopin’s book was published in 1899 and Alice is a modern woman.
But the character who made me fall in love with the book was Kaya. She is also constrained by social class rules and expectations, but she finds a way to break away from them, even if that means taking advantage of the sexism that rules our society. For me, Kaya is the perfect example of how young women should approach feminism: we are not completely free, because we are born into some circumstances, but finding the tool to defy them is what matters the most. And if that means playing with how the others construct you, then, do it. Of course, I am talking about a literary character and I think young girls like Kaya should never, ever, be subjected to what she was in real life. All she wants is an education and she is a really good student, but she cannot afford an education and those are the circumstances that trigger her narrative. She is also an avid philosophy reader and she is usually reading feminist and phenomenological philosophy, like Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Here is some of my favourite quote so you can see why I loved Kaya so much:
Kaya likes this crowd: Saussure, Lacan, Derrida; the way they seek to uncouple what had previously assumed to naturally follow, lifting meaning away from words, to reveal the spaces between. This isn’t necessarily this; that isn’t necessarily that. Her own instincts run towards the fluid, the ambiguous and the possible.
So, I would totally recommend Strange Girls and Ordinary Women to anyone looking for a quick, yet complex and very philosophical and feminist reading. McCarthy presents and deconstructs social class, feminism, women’s bodies and social expectations in a simple way, yet one that remains with the reader. I had never heard of her even though this is her third book, so I am looking forward to exploring her past works and cannot wait for her next novel.