As promised, I'm back this week with part one of the What are Women Reading series. Today I'll be starting things off with offering my own book recommendation to other women.
The book I selected is Jean Rhys' novella, Good Morning, Midnight. Jean Rhys is probably best known for her retelling of Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea, a book I also love. But I decided to go with this one because it's so obscure and I don't think many people know about it.
What's the premise?
The novella is set in Paris, 1937, where Sasha Jansen has recently returned after a long hiatus. Sasha is in her late-thirties, unmarried, childless and without a husband, which makes her an anomaly at that time. Written in the first-person, the reader follows Sasha through her daily life as she roams the streets of Paris, drinks to excess, encounters various male figures and reflects back on her younger years that have brought her to this place.
I think you could characterize Sasha as a woman struggling heavily with both depression and alcoholism. She doesn't want to keep going in this direction but also can't seem to find a way out.
Why this book for What are Women Reading?
For me, Good Morning, Midnight was the book that really drove home the necessity for feminism and for women to be valued for their intelligence, creativity and capabilities. Essentially, to be valued for the same characteristics men traditionally are.
We live in a cultural climate that is obsessed with beauty and materialism. One look at a social media feed or a celebrity gossip site or even a billboard advertisement easily confirms this. I think it's sometimes easy to get swept away by the notion that physical appearances are what matter, and furthermore, what deserve our attention. If you are young and pretty and attractive to men, why not capitalize on that?
The character Sasha almost felt to me like a premonition of what will happen in ten, fifteen years, if all you're valued for is a female body. It's made clear in the novel that Sasha was once young, beautiful and desirable. But she isn't any longer. Maybe in fleeting moments, but not permanently. In the world of the late-1930s, where women are valued for their beauty, their sexuality, their fertility, she has nothing to offer as a middle-aged woman.
If you read the book, I think you'll understand just how sad it is. It's written in her voice so you can hear her intelligence, her insight, her wittiness in every sentence. Even though she's severely depressed, she's so likeable to me as a character. She's not someone unfamiliar. And it just feels devastating that she's at such lose ends because she's older and she's lost all the commodities she has to bargain with as a woman.
I think it was after reading this book that I fully began to understand why women need to be valued for more than just their physical bodies. It might be hard to believe, but there will be a day when even the most beautiful among us no longer turn heads when we walk in a room. We'll no longer have youth on our side. We'll no longer hold the same sexual appeal. We'll no longer be fertile.
I don't want to feel like my life is over by the time I'm 35 because I've lost these things, and I also believe there's so much more women have to offer. You can see in Sasha that she has so much to offer. I want to live in a world where women can live long and happy lives, where they are respected for who they are, and I think that starts with being valued for everything that extends beyond the physical so we're not destroyed when our youth fades.
I think Good Morning, Midnight is valuable to women because it makes you think about these issues. Beyond that, it's beautifully written in such clear, lyrical language. In my opinion, Jean Rhys is one of the most undervalued modernist writers and I won't stop talking about her because I'm determined to get more people reading her work.