#20BooksofSummer: No. 14 – The Home-Maker

It’s been nearly a hundred years since The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher was published (1924) and I wish I could say that more had changed in the meantime. Sadly, if the recent (ongoing) pandemic has proved anything, it is that the traditional division of labour within the household is still alive and kicking and gender inequality in the workplace is on the rise again. So this book was radical in its day, but still has a lot to tell us about gender roles and ‘parenting instincts’ in the present day. What is revolutionary about Fisher’s work is that she sees domestic work as undervalued and soul-crushing regardless of who does it:

The little things of life, of no real importance, but which have to be ‘seen to’ by American home-makers, is like a blanket smothering out the fine and great potential qualities in every one of us.

Eva Knapp is a force of nature, an energetic and driven woman, but she is not a natural mother. Described at some point by her husband as ‘a Titan forced to tend a miniature garden’ or ‘a gifted mathematician set to paint a picture’, she does not find her greatest fulfilment in domestic tasks and childrearing, but feels it’s her duty to do her best for her family. The author shows remarkable insight about subjects which even now seem to be taboo for a mother to admit.

These were the moments in a mother’s life about which nobody ever warned you, about which everybody kept a deceitful silence, the fine books and the speakers who had so much to say about the sacredness of maternity. They never told you that there were moments of arid clear sight when you saw helplessly that your children would never measure up to your standard, never would be really close to you, because they were not your kind of human beings.

We’ve all been there, Eva love! Needless to say, she cannot admit anything like failure, so doesn’t discuss any of this with anyone. Instead, she sticks rather grimly to her daily tasks, prefering cleaning and cooking rather than actually talking to the children, much like present-day mums driving their children from one after-school activity to another. She fusses over the children’s health and over her youngest’s wayward ways and is heartily dissatisfied with her husband Lester. Nobody in the family is happy but they don’t know or expect any different.

Meanwhile, Lester is a bit of a dreamer and a poet, unhappy with his work in finance in the local department store, not overly ambitious. He feels he is missing out on his children, but doesn’t dare to interfere with Eva’s iron fist rule over the domestic domain.

He never had time to know his children, to stalk and catch that exquisitely elusive bird-of-paradise, their confidence. Lester had long ago given up any hope of having time enough to do other things that seemed worth while, to read the books he liked, to meditate, to try to understand anything. But it did seem that in the matter of his own children… Lester never doubted that his wife loved her children with all the passion of her fiery heart, but there were times when it occurred to him that she did not like them very well – not for long at a time, anyhow.

When he is kicked out of his job, he feels like a complete failure and seriously considers suicide – his last act of love for his family, or so he believes. That way, they could at least get his insurance money; but this is of course not the case if the cause of death is suicide, so he has to make it look like an accident.

Sure enough, an accident occurs (deliberate or not?) and poor Lester is incapacitated, so Eva has to become the main breadwinner. This role reversal suits the family perfectly: Eva has a real talent for business, while the children thrive under Lester’s benign parenting (and considerably lower demands of cleanliness and gourmet cooking). But what will the neighbours think? Is their small town ready for such a revolutionary role swap?

Of course, this book is reflective of its time, in that it doesn’t really offer a creative solution for both partners that is sustainable in the long-term. The couple are still not really talking to each other, although they are each secretly pleased with their new role. They are not really brave enough to break out of the mould just yet. The book is about more than just gender division of labour and this is what makes it feel fresh even today: reminding us to slow down, enjoy what we have and not allow ourselves to be pressured into society’s definition of ‘success’. Having seen so many cases of dual-career couples (in academia, among expats) where the woman has had to give up her career to follow the husband, and finds it difficult to admit even to herself just how bitter and dissatisfied that makes her, I would say the novel still has many many recognisable moments and messages.

You can find more reviews of The Home-Maker from Vishy, the Captive Reader, and Juliana Brina. It was reissued by Persephone eight years or so ago, and has become one of its most popular titles, but I’ve come late to it.

Last Book Splurge, 2018

It’s not as bad as it looks, because some of these books are from the library (the thickest ones). I am clearly hoping for a quiet Christmas holiday period, with lots of reading. But I have to admit that I’ve also been tempted to spend more than usual on books this month, because in January my self-imposed book ban kicks in.

Christmas presents for the boys:

The full set – maybe something for the future.

They love manga and graphic novels, but I’m trying to get them to broaden their tastes, so I bought The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman and one volume of Shigeru Mizuki’s monumnetal History of Showa Japan (the Second World War). That’s because my older son is quite keen on history. Keeping the Japanese theme going (given my own background and the fact that we are planning a trip to Japan in 2021), a beautifully illustrated volume entitled How to Live Japanese by Yutaka Yazawa. Another passion that unites us all is the love for our cat, Zoe, and the little book Test Your Cat should provide hours of entertainment. Two further books – the first ones I bought for them before I became a little too indulgent – are Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe for the future engineer, and Inventing Ourselves. The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain by Sarah=Jayne Blakemore for the argumentative future lawyer. Last but not least – although not strictly speaking a book – I also bought some sheet music for my older son, who’s recently started playing the keyboard: The Very Best of John Williams (a compromise between the classical music I like and the stuff that would be too complicated for him to play).

Christmas presents for myself:

I’ve renewed my subscription for another year with the Asymptote Book Club, as I get so much out of it, even when I sometimes struggle to keep up with the reading (it shouldn’t be the case, it’s only one book a month, right?). So the Christmas delivery is finally a book from Africa (come on, publishers, do translate more from that continent!). The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga is going to be an emotional read, I can foresee, based on the author’s mother’s story of trying to save children during the genocide in Rwanda.

On my last day at work I also finally made a trip to the nearby Persephone Bookshop, that so many of you have praised to the skies (or warned me about, depending on your level of concern for my financial health). I came away with 4 books that I wrapped up and gave to myself as Christmas presents. No one ever gives me books as a present because: a) I allegedly have too many already; b) I’ve read everything already; c) they don’t know what I like. To which my answers are: a) I can always squeeze in a few more and regularly give away to charity; b) no; c) pretty much omnivorous.

So my Persephone choices were:

Noel Streatfield: Saplings – simply because I grew up with Ballet Shoes and Curtain Up and White Boots and loved all the brave and talented young girls in her books. I know this is one for adults, but it’s about children suffering as a result of evacuation during the war.

Dorothy Whipple: Someone at a Distance – my first Whipple, the last novel she wrote, an author warmly recommended by the likes of Ali Hope , Jacqui and Simon Thomas. Plus, it’s about adultery and the breakdown of a marriage, a subject I feel rather an expert in!

Elisabeth De Waal: The Exiles Return – Edmund De Waal’s mother was born in Vienna and grew up there until they had to flee in the 1930s. She never got a chance to return, but in this novel her protagonists return from exile. Can you ever fit back into a place that pushed you out?

Dorothy Canfield Fisher: The Home-Maker – written in the 1920s but still surprisingly relevant today, about the frustration of stay at home mothers, and the challenges (and satisfaction) of role reversals among parents.

Little Bits Inspired by Twitter:

Uwe Johnson: Jahrestage (Anniversaries)

Readers whose opinions I respect were just going on and on about the recently translated 4 volume masterpiece and I’m such a herd animal that I had to check it out for myself. I found a second-hand Suhrkamp box-set edition dating from 1988 on a German bookshop website and ordered it. It may not be pretty, but it was affordable and should keep me busy for the next several years!

Fernando Sdrigotti: Shitstorm

I’ve been following Argentinian writer and editor of online literary journal Minor Literatures for a while now on Twitter. This novelette is about a wealthy nobody who goes viral when he slays a protected lion on the plains of Africa (remind you of any recent story?). Described as a sharp and perceptive chronicle dissecting the murky waters of viral news.

Katya Apekina: The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish

I think this one might have been mentioned on one of those ‘under the radar’ books of 2018. It sounds like a pretty hard-hitting story: two young girls who are sent to live with their estranged father after their mother’s suicide attempt. Besides, I’m always fascinated by people who write in languages other than their mothertongue (same applies for Sdrigotti, above).

Penelope Skinner: Linda

I saw this performed in November and discovered that there is a script published by Faber and Faber.

Shirley Hazzard: The Transit of Venus

I’ve read Hazzard’s satire about the United Nations bureaucracy in People in Glass Houses and her look at Anglo expat life in Italy in The Bay of Noon. She has a great eye for human foibles, but above all such stylish and precise sentences! She was mentioned in The Paris Review’s annual round-up of favourite reads and I realised that I’d quite like to read her book about two Australian sisters coming to live in England.

Ralph Dutli: Soutines letzte Fahrt (Soutine’s Last Journey)

When I wrote about seeing a Soutine exhibition at the Courtauld roughly a year ago, one of my blogger friends Shigekuni (aka Marcel Imhoff) drew my attention to this novel about the last few weeks of Soutine’s life, as he goes back to occupied Paris in 1943 for a potentially life-saving operation. On the way, in a morphine-induced haze, he remembers his childhood and life in exile.

From the Library:

C.J. Sansom: Lamentation

Would you be shocked to hear that I’ve never read any of C.J. Sansom’s historical fiction? I read Dominion, his alternate take on post-war Britain as a satellite state of Nazi Germany (and was not that fond of it). However, so many people whose opinion I respect have raved about his most recent novel Tombland and just generally about the Shardlake series, that I felt I had to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Elif Batuman: The Idiot

I’ve been meaning to read this book ever since I saw it shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in the UK and for the Pulitzer Prize in the US. But mostly because it’s about a foreigner attending college in the US and trying to adapt to another culture. I cannot resist those ‘intercultural dialogues and misunderstandings’ themes. In the meantime, 180 pages in I realised that most of it was so dull that it didn’t make up for the few flashes of insight. So I abandoned it.

Claire Fuller: Bitter Orange

Simmering resentments and darkness, atmospheric, and the story of friendships knitted in the late 1960s – a good companion piece, perhaps to Sigrid Nunez The Last of Her Kind. I’ll read the two of them together.

I hardly dare to add up the total number of unread books lurking on my shelves, chests of drawers, bedside tables, in artistic piles on the floor etc. Suffice it to say that I think I might have a book to see me through every single day of 2019! So let’s get cracking!