Sunday, June 23, 2013


Quartet, Jean Rhys
Read: 1 April to 4 April 2013
3 / 5 stars

Oh, another instance of three stars signifying my failure as a reader (and possibly as a compassionate human being). I haven't felt such regretful pangs of "It's not you, it's me" and been so keenly reminded that my histrionic, womanly emotions prevented me from appreciating the finer points of a novel since A Confederacy of Dunces. At least that had moments of comedy to keep the blackness at bay; Quartet was just all hopelessness all the time. And I just couldn't take it, regardless of all the tragic beauty Rhys veritably stuffed into this inspired-by-true-events tale of woe.

I feel like such a hypocrite for recently praising Woolf's ability to summon inglorious emotions and loving her for it while allowing the same gut-wrenching talent Rhys exhibits to anger me to the point of yelling at these characters because I couldn't relish the physical relief of smacking some sense into them: The difference is that Woolf seemed to give terrible things a bigger-picture significance while Rhys's intent is not the same. There's no point to the bleakness because sometimes life just sucks. Especially if you're a woman in the early 20th century and, therefore, are expected to live as a subservient possession -- and so help you if you're not appropriately and outwardly grateful for the privilege to go through life on your hands and knees, please and thank you, sir. It takes some writing chops to believably portray the ugliness going on here and make it sound so necessarily hopeless yet so poetic, and, ye gods, does Rhys ever have 'em. It is no fault of her own that I read this with a post-women's-lib perspective, often in my office where I get to rule my department with an iron fist (or passive-aggressive guilt -- whatever, same result) and, according my boss, have instilled the fear of God in men older than I am and then go home to a husband who loves me as a person and treats me as an equal partner in our relationship: Mine is not at all the world Rhys is writing about, and I realize not being able to truly understand hers is not a bad problem to have but presents a problem nonetheless in my approach to Quartet.

It is remarkable that, for being written in the late 1920s and so clearly expressing how servile women are supposed to be, there was something so urgently timeless about this book. It's not easy for a piece of literature that's nearing its centennial to shirk the grasp of datedness but this book certainly does. And Rhys? You're fucking AWESOME for pulling that off.

I wanted to feel so badly for Marya, I really did. A husband in jail and a married man whose advances she mistakes for love make for a lousy situation, especially when the weakling she married forces her to fend for herself when that's just not feasible, leaving her to seek refuge with a couple whose interest in her well-being is so transparent a blind man could have realized their motives. It's really not her fault that she had no means of surviving on her own, let alone the knowledge or inner strength to do so even if she had found a path to freedom. What made things all the more awful was that Marya had these achingly poignant moments of hating her circumstances so much and recognizing the futility of her situation that almost -- almost! -- drove her to action if she weren't so damnably susceptible to being torn down by both her husband and the cad to whom she is a reluctant mistress. It was like watching a friend stubbornly spiral down the rabbit hole of bad decision chased by bad decision all because she had no regard for the well-intended interventions that all proved maddeningly futile. Seriously: If I had to hear one more character, even the all-bark-no-bite Lois whose big mouth only took her as far as her dominating husband would let her run, I was going to throw this book at the first guy who had the misfortune of speaking to me at the wrong time.

In the end, I couldn't help but feel like such somberly lovely prose was wasted on such irrevocably rotten characters -- not that the play of the two dueling aesthetics didn't add to the insurmountable misery that was doing a fine job of escalating on its own. But I just couldn't, in good conscience, say that I loved a book where a woman was so ruthlessly victimized by both the era in which she had the misfortune of existing and the men who dominated her without a twinge of conscience. I usually do care more that a story is told well than I do about the plot itself but this one was just too raw and too filled with hurt to ignore: The beauty of the language couldn't save the soul-crushingly appalling tale it told.

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