Friday Fragment: Unsympathetic

I’m listening to Melanie Gideon’s Wife 22 right now. I’m about half-way through, and I think I hate it. At least, I think I hate the protagonist-narrator, Alice Buckle, who like me is a long-married woman about to turn 45. It’s a chick-lit-style take on midlife crisis and a marriage in trouble, or at least in doldrums. Alice signs up for a marriage study (in which she’s assigned the identifier “Wife 22”) that gradually leads to an online flirtation with “Researcher 101.” I want to smack her. She’s irresponsible, adolescent, neurotic (not in an endearing way), is over-enmeshed with her kids, and seems to be ignoring any overtures from her husband.

Why am I still listening, despite my frustrations?

Because of this post on “The Curse of the Sympathetic Character” from litlove’s wonderful blog, Tales from the Reading Room. Litlove writes:

I become increasingly concerned that what this plea for sympathetic characters actually means is a strong cultural pressure on people, in life as in fiction, to behave according to certain unwritten norms.

She suggests that this pressure is especially strong on women and female characters, a concern familiar to many readers of romance, a genre in which heroines are often held to much higher standards than heroes.

And I’m still listening because of Suleikha Snyder’s post on “Kicking the Heroine Addiction,” which asks, essentially, how the use of “hero” and “heroine” to describe the novel’s protagonists might be limiting the romance genre. As Snyder says of her characters,

They’re not noble, they’re not brave and you’re not supposed to look up to them. You might not even like them. They’re just people. They’re flawed, and it’s strange to have them held up to a higher standard just because they’re trying to navigate the pitfalls of love.

So I ask myself, am I being unfair to Alice Buckle? Is she not worth writing or reading about just because she makes mistakes, whines about her troubles, strikes me as immature for her age? I ask myself, too, whether I dislike her because I see in her parts of myself and my own struggles with midlife that I don’t want to look too closely at. Maybe I’d like to believe I’ve resolved these things, but I really haven’t. So I feel I should give her another chance.

But at the half-way point, I don’t think Alice is going to win me over. It’s not so much because she’s flawed as because she’s boring and shallow. The book treats some things that have caused me serious soul-searching in recent years in a frothy, superficial way. It’s not that I think we can’t laugh at our pain. Gallows humor can be cathartic. But I feel as if the book is asking me to laugh at Alice, not with her. She’s not self-aware enough to laugh at or really understand herself. Her struggles and flaws don’t seem, so far, in any way enlightening. She doesn’t really feel human, but like a cardboard collection of stereotypes about the midlife woman. And I think, ultimately, that’s why she seems unsympathetic to me.

It’s not a bad book. There are vivid scenes and the dialogue is often snappy. But the main emotion it provokes in me is irritation. Are you fucking kidding me, Alice?

Here’s a more sympathetic review, though. (A number of reviews mention that readers don’t know the questions Alice is responding to until the end, but in the audio, perhaps for obvious reasons, the question is read before her answer. I wonder if/how this might change the reading experience).

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3 Responses to Friday Fragment: Unsympathetic

  1. litlove says:

    Thank you for the link! And I’m so interested in your dilemma. After the discussion on my blog, I ended up feeling that the problem lies more in the way we think about ‘sympathy’. I agree that it’s not necessarily that Alice isn’t nice enough for you – she may simply not be interesting enough, or genuine enough, or the situation she’s in may not be portrayed in such a way that you engage with the conflict. What you say about her being a cardboard cutout strikes me as highly insightful.

  2. It’s not so much because she’s flawed as because she’s boring and shallow.

    I haven’t read Wife 22, but I think the above is something I’m always experiencing in both TV and fiction. I don’t need a character to be perfect or nice, I need them to be interesting. Too often, there’s no draw, no conflict, in a nice, sympathetic character. Someone who is screwed up…that bears watching. One of the best books of 2012 is Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and I think it’s safe to say that Amy blows the idea of the sympathetic heroine out of the water. In fact, that’s the device Flynn plays with in the course of the mystery, and it’s brilliant and devious.

  3. I am trying to be braver about not finishing things I’m not enjoying. I’m trying not to see it as a failure on my part; instead, as a success of moving on to something I will enjoy more.

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