English as a Second Language — Megan Crane

In English as a Second Language, our heroine Alexandra goes to grad school across the pond primarily because her ex-boyfriend says she can’t. It’s a bit of a lark… but one that’ll take about a year to get through.

Right.

Hm. The writing style’s quick and witty (highlights include Alex attempting to spy on her flatmate’s ex-girlfriend in order to help him find out if she’s got a new boyfriend: ‘I was pretty drunk, I admitted to myself, but why let that get in the way of a simple reconnaissance mission? I was highly trained. I’d attended a small liberal arts college.’ This line makes me giggle.) and the pacing’s tight. But (there’s always a but) the characters and the impact on the story are stratified based on gender. Alex lays out the issue herself near the beginning. ‘Something happened after too many years in New York: you curdled or maybe it was the last dregs of your optimism  drying up, and then the next thing you knew you were a 42-year-old “career woman” too mean to even bother with cats.’ She’s got to navigate a path to adulthood that balances sexuality, success, and self-respect. Normally I’d think that’s the hotness, but here? Not so much. One of the central conflicts of the book is Alex’s tumultuous relationship with the red-headed Suzanne, a women’s college graduate who’s a psychotic bunny boiler, and competes with Alex for top marks and the affection of Toby, a sexy sexy boy they both take classes with. During the course of the year, Toby hooks up with Suzanne, kinda-but-doesn’t break up with her, while having random deep connections with Alex. Throughout the book, everyone reminds us that Alex is the male version of Toby (they both drink and smoke?) but what’s noticeably absent on Alex’s end is the emotionally manipulative dicking around. And, keep in mind, even though Toby’s been sleeping with Suzanne and messing with Alex’s mind, the person you DON’T want to be is Suzanne (because she’s nuts) and the person you want to DATE is Toby (because he’s sexy beast).

For Alex, there are two kinds of women: the Suzannes of the world, who are nutty, randomly mean, and sexual in all the wrong ways (they turn into angry feminists too mean to own cats, I presume) and the flitty, ditzy girls she’s friends with, who have tumultuous love lives with vaguely emotionally distant men, smoke a lot, and keep their pesky feelings confined to the kitchenette or pub, where they can’t bother anyone. I’m no too sure what kind of adults they turn into, though, or if they ever actually make it there.

Comments

  1. Purtek says

    nutty, randomly mean, and sexual in all the wrong ways (they turn into angry feminists too mean to own cats, I presume) [vs] the flitty, ditzy girls she’s friends with, who have tumultuous love lives with vaguely emotionally distant men, smoke a lot, and keep their pesky feelings confined to the kitchenette or pub, where they can’t bother anyone.

    This seems to be an emerging version of the virgin/whore dichotomy in some circles. We’re okay with the idea that women might have sex, but the girls who dare to own their sexuality and embrace it confidently must be mean and will end up angry feminists (why? Are we suggesting something is going to *happen* to them that might cause them to be angry at men?). “Good girls” are appropriately *troubled* by their sexuality, as well as concerned with what to do in order to land and keep a good man. As long as they spend lots and lots of time evaluating it, their emotional reactions to it, and the impact it has on their relationships, primarily in light of analyzing these “vaguely emotionally distant men” (I assume, I’ve never read the book), then we’re okay with them as women.

  2. says

    Yes!! I think that’s very true in a lot of the “chicklit” I’ve read. What I find troubling is that it’s a very post-Sex in the City phenom, and is generally lauded as being extremely liberating, etc., but you’re left going, Okay, how liberating is it to have a piece of fiction whose plot hinges on the battiness and the competiveness of women?

  3. Jennifer Kesler says

    I started to bring up SitC, because from the one episode I kind of watched all the way through, that’s all I saw: women who are All About The Menz. And even though one of The Menz, was Chris Noth – he who forces me to watch Law & Order: Criminal Intent even when it sucks – it still couldn’t keep my attention.

    The message I’m getting here is that if you aren’t All About The Menz, you dry up emotionally, become crazed and mean, because it’s in your nature as a woman to be softened by men. Or something.

    I can cut individuals slack for not being sure “Am I being less virginal than my mom because feminists told me I could, or because then the patriarchy came along and also said I could?” There’s a certain overlap where being somewhere between virgin and whore is acceptable in both camps. The difference is, in correctly applied feminism, you can be a virgin, a whore, or anything in between. Patriarchy will, by definition, always give you a “right” number of men to be with and a “right” way to be with them. When characters are entirely focused on that “right” stuff, I know their authors haven’t quite boarded the feminism train.

  4. says

    I think you’re really awesome to pick up on that issue of “rightness.” What I found in ESL and in other types of chicklit is a deep investment in doing things right. Like, you’ve got to toe the line. Too much sex leads to madness or bitchiness, and vice versa.

    And that’s not even going into this being one of the most monoracial Englands I’ve read in a while.

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