(Chatto & Windus, Â£12.99, 357pp)
I Don't Know How She Does It, by Allison Pearson
Big house, big salary, big fuss. Joan Smith loses patience with a poor little rich girl
Saturday 06 July 2002
Kate Reddy is a fund manager, a wife and the mother of two small children. Every morning she has to wrench herself away from her big house in Hackney and plunge into the intensely competitive atmosphere of the City. She is tired, short-tempered and guilty about leaving her children in the care of a nanny, a story she tells as a diary. Here, in the spirit of female solidarity evoked by the novel, is an excerpt from mine:
2.15 pm: Start reading I Don't Know How She Does It.
2.43 pm: Throw up over self-regarding heroine, long-suffering husband, improbable lover and cute kids.
It hardly needs saying that Reddy is Bridget Jones 10 years on, even if the ages do not quite work. We are in the territory of mid-30s female angst, and any woman not a pining singleton – characterised by a mother as "the childless enemy" – is knocking herself out trying to have it all. Men are useless in a variety of different ways, from husbands who cannot load a dishwasher to predatory City types who lust after Reddy's job rather than her body.
The exception is an American called Jack Abelhammer (really) who is transformed in a few pages from Kate's most difficult client to an admirer who feeds her erotic fantasies without actually expecting sex. When Kate decides to give up work and move to the country to save her marriage, he accepts his dismissal with perplexing meekness. The veneer of modernity is maintained by the use of e-mail but Jack's valediction – "The great thing about unrequited love is it's the only kind that lasts" – is straight out of Eric Segal's slushy Love Story.
Allison Pearson's novel began life as a series of columns in the Daily Telegraph, where it offered a supposedly humorous portrait of the difficulties facing a working mother, and the film rights have been sold to Miramax. It is being promoted as a tale for our times, with women readers invited to see their own dilemmas reflected in the comic disasters and pained introspection that are Reddy's lot. This is assuming a great deal, for Reddy is very much a metropolitan media creation, existing in a world where everyone accepts unquestioningly that trading in foreign currencies is a fantastically important job.
In that sense, her burdens seem self-imposed from the beginning. This is more a novel about the tyranny of affluence than the problem of combining work and motherhood. We are even invited to view Reddy's ludicrous workload as a form of altruism, motivated by the necessity to provide for two children whose care and education apparently cost about the same as running a small African state.
To arrive at larger conclusions from this extreme set of circumstances would be perilous, yet that is what the main character invites us to do. If the men in the novel overlook her heroic efforts, she certainly makes up for it herself, indulging in a conspiracy of mutual self-pity with her female friends.
Most of the themes of Seventies feminism appear here in populist form, with men infantilised, denigrated and finally idealised, as they always are in romantic novels. What really characterises Kate Reddy is a toxic combination of solipsism and sentimentality, especially where children are concerned. (My first queasy moment arrives when she stands outside her sleeping daughter's bedroom, listening to her "princess sighs".)
It is also a book without politics, except of the blandest sort, amounting to little more than a suggestion that capitalism could be nicer to women. This is all the more disheartening because Allison Pearson is a talented, intelligent journalist, who might have been expected to produce something more ambitious in her first attempt at fiction. Worse things have happened to women than having to choose, as her heroine eventually does, between living in a big house in London or one with a paddock in Derbyshire.
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