The Wrong Kind of Woman
The Wrong Kind of Woman is both a well-structured novel about feminism and a simplistic encapsulation of the feminist movement. Its characters are interesting, but we’ve read lots of stories about women like them before, and the novel shows promise but fails to deliver something fresh.
Virginia – Ginny – Desmarais’ husband Oliver dies just before the Christmas season of 1970 of a brain aneurysm, leaving her behind to raise their fourteen-year-old daughter Rebecca and deal with the ever mounting bills and her all-consuming grief. Oliver was a professor, and he taught history at the all-boys Clarendon College in New Hampshire – and the school will not pay out his pension.
But it’s toward the campus upon which she lives that Ginny turns to for succor, and it’s that campus that provides her with a solution. Though everyone expects her to melt into genteel widowhood, Ginny wishes to try to finish off her PhD in art history, which she’d set aside for life as a wife, but she’s unable to do so due to the single-sex educational atmosphere of Clarendon. Ginny instead seeks work at the campus library while becoming closer and closer to ‘The Gang of Four’.
This group is comprised of four outspoken feminist teachers who are unmarried and who rankle the male staff by asking questions, demanding respect and centering the conversation upon themselves. Together, Louise, Lily, Helen and Jeannette are trying to turn the campus co-ed. These four women quickly become Ginny’s friends, but soon enough, campus brass begins to press back against their outspoken gestures towards independence. One of the women is fired. An attempted bombing of a fraternity results in chaos, and might upend everything from Ginny’s relationship with her daughter to her relationship with The Gang of Four.
The Wrong Woman works until around the halfway point, but then it peters out and limps to a predictable conclusion. It’s truly best when it focuses upon Ginny and her struggle to emerge from the sixties housewife cocoon and regain a sense of herself as a mother and teacher, and when she hangs out with the Gang of Four. But the book trips itself up, indulging in several subplots that don’t really add to the novel.
The book has a very long subplot involving a group of students including Sam, one of Oliver’s old pupils, who cadges advice from Ginny, and his activist crush Elodie – which mostly provides a book-long distraction. Equally distracting is a subplot about fourteen-year-old Rebecca’s rebellion, which involves her unresolved grief for her father, a neighboring friend, and which results in disaster at a fraternity party. At least one of these plotlines ought not to have existed, and instead the book drags, feeling overlong and overstuffed. The ending feels too wide-open, though it is nice to know that the characters’ lives will go on and on from here.
Ginny is a fine everywoman, and fiery Louise a particularly good secondary character. The writing is fine and absorbing enough. But there needed to be so much more going on under the hood of this novel to really make it feel smart and distinct. The Wrong Woman has its appealing points – a good sense of time and place for instance – but is lacking when it comes to making the audience feel as if they’re with someone special, standing somewhere unique.