Monday, April 11, 2005

Steps and Exes

“Maybe that’s it,” said Nona reflectively. “Maybe that’s the New Romance. Love being limited. Necessary, but not as central, not the single measure of a woman’s success. After all, women’s lives are more than compendiums of the men they’ve slept with. Women are asking more from the world. If the world gives you more, then you need less from men. Women are asking less from love. If you ask for less, you’re more easily fulfilled. If you’re more easily fulfilled, you can get on with the rest of your life, and all the possibilities in it. Men have to be time-effective for a woman. Romance,” she added, beaming, “in the age of efficiency!”
-Laura Kalpakian, Steps and Exes

Only men think it’s so romantic to go it alone. Look at you – you’re off with your boat – you and no other. Man against the sea! Why do men think you can only be a hero by yourself? Man against Nature! Man against Society! Why don’t men ever acknowledge that keeping something together can be just as heroic as being all alone? Men are always against something. Why can’t they be for something? [. . .] I’m not committed to universals. I’m for very modest, particular things. An ordinary life. Watching my daughter grow up. Making a home for us. A living. Nothing very grand or ambitious.
-Sunny, Steps and Exes by Laura Kalpakian

Well, I’m sick on the couch and in a moment of respite caused by taking some ibuprofen and eating some lunch, I want to tell you about this book I just finished and that I think everyone should read. (Not every book that I read is an everyone-should-read-this-book book. For instance, I also just finished Neal Stephenson’s System of the World and although I loved it, I don’t think everyone would.) The book is called Steps and Exes and is by a woman named Laura Kalpakian. It first came to my attention several years ago when I read a review for it in Glamour magazine. I liked the premise of a woman who lived life so generously that she had accumulated a huge, complicated family of step-children, in-laws, and ex-husbands. However, since I don’t usually go out and read books because of their reviews in magazines, I didn’t think about it after that. When it came into the shop, though, I remembered it and grabbed it. As it turns out, the book is also set on a fictional San Juan island (that what my group of islands are called) and the author describes island living very accurately.

I would compare this book to Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees because it is about how people interact in a world where the old rules about loyalty and family no longer apply. They are about women who cannot make traditional choices of marriage and at-home motherhood because of circumstances out of their control. Both authors tell the story by allowing the reader to access the experience through characters that seem familiar and are therefore both heart wrenching and enjoyable, just like the people we actually know. Since Dennis left I have been thinking about marriage as an institution and how it applies to my life. Books like these two get me closer to figuring out the truth.

I want sweeping romance and a partner who is also my best friend. Often, though, I believe that sweeping romance is impossible without innocence because I now know that sweeping romance does not always come packaged with a suitable partner. Hormones and timing have much more to do with creating love than long-term fitness. So the quote from Nona (who is an aging romance novelist that has just been told that her novels no longer appeal to women of today, most of whom are divorced, working mothers) feels right and makes good common sense. I am now making a life for myself in which I make decisions based on what is good for me, rather than what is good for my relationship and I am more at harmony with myself and the world around me than I ever have been. But I miss that kind of absolute commitment and devotion to another person. I want that perfect package, and with a shiny bow. And I know that if I lower my expectations, I will only get what I expect. I don’t want to give up my idealism and my optimism. So, Sunny’s words also speak to me. I love that these quotes seem to contradict each other in attitude but both are meant to be mouthpieces for the theme of the book. Both quotes communicate that women must be self-sufficient but that there is more, too, if we look for it.

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