Man oh man. People, we have here a reviewer who has reached Stage Five on the scale of Great Book Reviews. An exciting development.
What are the stages? Let’s see…
Sometimes a reviewer makes you excited about a particular book. Let’s call that Stage One.
Sometimes a reviewer makes you want to read all the works by the author. Stage Two.
Let’s call it Stage Three when you want to read all the works of an author you previously had never thought you’d want to read.
And let’s call it Stage Four when the reviewer has the effect that Alison Lurie had on me with this one…
The image of an English woman writer of the first rank, for well over a hundred years, has been of a sensitive, well-bred, well-read person who is nevertheless somewhat nervous and unhappy, prone to mental and physical ailments and in extreme cases to self-destruction. Though she feels deeply, this woman’s erotic life is limited or shadowed in some way; she is seldom happily married, and probably has no children.
Okay. I’m interested. Where are we headed here? A biography of Virginia Woolf, perhaps? Maybe another updating of the novels of Saint Jane? A.S. Byatt v. Margaret Drabble?
Yet the first famous portrayal of a great woman storyteller in English literature is almost exactly the opposite of this stereotype. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is a cheerful, strong-willed, eminently sane matron who has had five husbands as well as what Chaucer discreetly calls “other company in youth.” In a patriarchal world, she has managed to share power with men and make them and herself happy.
Oooh. That’s interesting. Sometimes these sneak-attack openings commit the sin of trying too hard. But this one has my interest. What did happen to the Wife of Bath as a model storyteller? Where are we headed now? Comparison of Chaucer with, say, Elizabeth Bowen or Hilary Mantel?
In real life, the nearest thing in contemporary Britain to the Wife of Bath as a storyteller is Fay Weldon. She shares with her predecessor a strong personal voice – practical, funny, wise – and not only physical appearance but multiple marriages. Many of the stories she tells have the moral of the Wife of Bath’s Tale: that what women want is their own way. If they get it, they will make men happy; if not, not.
Simply marvelous. Fay Weldon! I’ve ignored her for years. Now I’ll check her out.
So what’s Stage Four? When the reviewer can make you want to read Fay Weldon. Repeat: Fay Weldon.
And Stage Five? When you also want to read everything by the reviewer.
Nice work, Alison Lurie!
You can read more of Lurie’s (paywalled) article in The New York Review of Books.