This is a double book rec post — I forgot to do an August post and can’t pick just one for September!
Either/Or by Elif Batuman
Elif Batuman’s novel The Idiot, about a young woman attempting to use her freshman year at Harvard to find out how to live, was one of my favorites. Now Batuman follows up with Either/Or, the sequel, in which Selin recovers from her heartbreak over the unavailable young man she met in The Idiot and attempts to use books to discover how to live an “aesthetic life,” as opposed to an ethical one. She quickly, of course, discovers that books don’t really point the way to bliss for women, since most books in the canon are written by men who secretly hate women. Her friends start to get boyfriends, which she finds disappointing, but she also feels compelled to figure out a way to get rid of her virginity (which leads to a lot of the most raucously funny stuff in this book).
The great pleasure to me of this novel (besides the delight of reading a shrewd woman’s responses to supposedly great books, of course) is Selin herself. Like her, I always found the moment-to-moment rules of social interaction which everyone else seems to understand instinctively, puzzling; and I too thought the answers could be found in literature (to be honest, I still do). Selin, however, improves on the experience of living inside the head of a bookish nerd by being extremely funny. It’s a particular kind of being funny, and possibly my favorite. She’s extremely deadpan in a way that makes you see mundane things in a whole new way:
“We spent the afternoon in Somerville chasing around a TV and VCR that a postdoc guy had said he would give to Priya. The level of coordination, the number of phone calls and changes of plan, made it feel more like a hostage negotiation than a voluntary exchange of property.”-Either/Or
I mean. Who hasn’t been in that situation with someone you were trying to do a favor for, or get a favor from? Or a rando on Craigslist? The first and only time I posted in a Buy Nothing group to give something away also felt like this. But no one ever described it as amusingly as Elif Batuman.
Woman Running in the Mountains by Yūko Tsushima
In this 1980 novel, a young woman gives birth to an illegitimate child in Tokyo and struggles to make a life for herself and her baby while living with abusive parents. As a footnote in the book explains to us, the rate of illegitimacy in Japan is extremely low (even now, it’s as low as 2-3%), so you know that the heroine has to be unusual in some way. Her mother urges her to get an abortion, and she has no interest in a continued relationship with the (married) father, but she refuses. She gives birth to her baby, leaves her office job, and attempts to care for the baby and pay the daycare fees while working marginal jobs. Anyone who’s familiar with what it’s like to be a working parent right now will feel their heart squeeze at the day-to-day details of Takiko’s precarious existence. She spends some time working at a restaurant where she is intensely stressed about being able to leave her job on time in order to get to daycare pickup, and meanwhile the fees take up almost her entire salary. Then she finds a different job, a harder but more welcoming one, and things begin to change.
Takiko is a fascinating character. The author writes in a limited third-person perspective, but we never feel quite close to her. She rejects all sentimentality, both in her relationships with men (whom she sleeps with when she feels like it) and in her relationship with her child, Akira, who sometimes spends hours strapped to her back as she enjoys astonishing amounts of whiskey at a local cafe. As Akira grows, you see the power of her love for him in the sheer force of will she exerts to keep him with her and to make sure he’s cared for. But there is no treacle, no rosy glow cast over her relationship with him. She just keeps caring for him.
What I loved about this book was the sense of liberation that Takiko finally achieves, and how it’s not just in her mind but in her body. This includes her sexuality, but also includes her appreciation for beauty and for physical exertion (as the title would imply). Being a new mother is a physically draining, painful, and circumscribed experience. It makes sense that Takiko’s happy ending would be the reverse: physically pleasurable and unrestrained.
The edition I bought (linked above) also has an intro by Lauren Groff, a nice bonus.