The tangled, confusing, barbed-wire emotions of women at various ages and stages forms the basis of The Generosity of Women, Courtney Eldridge's first full-length novel. It's not chick-lit but a literary work of considerable skill and finesse as six women, ages 16-mid-50s, describe the events of a 5-day period in their lives.
Mothers, Daughters, Lovers, Friends
The story isn't linear and frequently flashes back to the past; it can be confusing to grasp what's going on as multiple viewpoints take up different threads of the tale at different times.
But Eldridge's multi-generational Sex and the City-style story mines familiar ground as a group of fabulously dressed, head-turning women negotiate their way through shaky love lives and rocky parent/child relationships in and around New York City.
The Title Characters
There's Joyce Kessler, an over-the-top self-promoter and A-list gallery owner with a smart comeback for every moment; Bobbie Myers, her best friend who buries herself in her OB/GYN practice, leaving no room for romantic love in her life or in her heart; Bobbie's adopted 23-year-old daughter Adela, a brilliant, beautiful, high-functioning mess who will soon shock everyone with what she's done and what she's about to do; Bobbie's patient Lisa, a former Kessler gallery employee who gives up the punk rock life and fringe art scene to marry well yet harbors regrets; Lisa's sister Lynne, whose Martha-Stewart-like existence in the suburbs is cracking under the strain of disappointment, buried secrets, and years of anger ; and Jordan, Lynne's once-perfect teenage daughter who hates her life and turns to a man nearly twice her age for compassion.
A Challenging Novel
The Generosity of Women
is a worthy read but it's not an easy one. Although each character's narrative is clearly labeled, the author has made a stylistic choice to render dialogue without quotation marks, line or paragraph breaks, making it hard to follow who's saying what. The truth becomes a moving target as each scene is revisited again and again from different perspectives; unlike pieces in a puzzle, they don't always fit perfectly.
There's a streak of narcissism in each character that can be hard to stomach. And as captivating as their lives seem while you're immersed in this book, you may wonder what you saw in them once you reach the conclusion.
So why read The Generosity of Women
? Among other reasons, the novel thoughtfully tackles a subject not often discussed in contemporary fiction -- abortion. As a successful OB/GYN who provides abortions but doesn't question her patients' decisions, Bobbie does so because she believes she's making women's lives better; yet as several of the characters' experiences illustrate, the decision to abort or not to abort has lasting repercussions which ripple through their lives.
The even-handed discussions regarding the termination of life rise above the usual shouting matches that abortion provokes, and when one character asks another, "How can you give an abortion to another woman when you've never felt life inside you?" it's less an accusation than an attempt to understand another perspective.
What Women Share
In its best moments, The Generosity of Women
reveals the all-encompassing love and care women have for each other when they have celebrated the good and survived the bad of each others' lives for decades. Eldridge plumbs the depths of women's friendship and finds moments that are authentic, harsh, and beautiful. If you're lucky to have equally dedicated friends in your life, you'll understand.
The Generosity of Women
by Courtney Eldridge
Hardcover, 354pp. ISBN 978-0-15-101101-8
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt / June 2009