Monday, July 27, 2009

Three Fallen Women: A review

I recently read Amy Guth's novel Three Fallen Women, and I thought I'd share my thoughts on it with you. Amy is a fellow Chicago author, and the founder of the Pilcrow Lit Festival. Her Tribune blog on the Chicago Now network Chicago Subtext is rapidly becoming the place to go for the latest news on all things literary.

Three Fallen Women, to give you a bit of background, is a novel told in three parts with three interwoven and largely-unrelated storylines. It concerns the lives of three women, Helen, Carmen, and Frieda, whose lives are plagued with dissatisfaction for various, often self-victimizing reasons. These women all undergo a pivotal moment in their lives during the course of this book, with varying results. It's the sort of uncomplex plot canvas that an author like Alice Munro might use to paint an ultra-vivid, sometimes surreal picture of humanity on, and that's more or less where Guth takes it.

It would be a mistake to liken Three Fallen Women to Munro's style, however, because Guth brings a narrative voice rich with moments I might describe as a version of American Cockney. Generation X colloquialisms, as typical of the style often inside-joke-ish and sarcastic, color the narrative of Three Fallen Women throughout. As such, the book has a palpable "right now" feel that embraces its audience and challenges us to keep up with it, rather than the other way around. I would feel again and again while reading the book the recurring gratitude I always feel when it's clear an author assumes I'm intelligent enough to follow their logic instead of spoon-feeding it to me.

It avoids being formulaic due to Guth's clear sense of over-arching tone throughout, and reads very quickly despite being densely narrated and deliciously descriptive. The perspective shifts are not difficult to follow because the three main characters have unique enough narratives to easily tell apart. There does exist, however, a vague sense of commonality between the three leading ladies, that I think leads the reader only very subtly to the book's most present theme.

I spoke to Amy about Three Fallen Women a while back and I remember her telling me that the deeper meaning of the story was the refreshingly atypical idea that the three main characters live lives connected by the common theme of bad choices and failing to learn from mistakes. This is a decidedly fresh approach that I think flies in the face of possibly the greatest now-cliche critique of third wave feminism: the idea (espressed legendarily by Jack Nicholson in the film As Good As It Gets) that women feel little compunction to act in reasonable ways and are seldom held accountable for their choices.

Three Fallen Women is all about choices and accountability, though if I hadn't spoken to Guth about this, I might not have picked that out on the first read. The stories, compelling though they are, never come off as preachy or having a cohesive "point" to make. Though its organic structure might boast a valid claim to being a viable, smarter-than-average chick lit crossover title, Three Fallen Women succeds in being quite accessible to a male audience and in places (as Eric Spitznagel states in the liner notes) very genuinely touching in this respect. There is every inclination in the aftermath of the last fifty years of gender sociopolitics to identify the feminine almost as a distinct not-so-silent "character" in a book like this. Happily, Guth sidesteps this cliche and brings us instead a portrait of women that seems as honest and shameless as the language itself.

If you're looking for something smart, honest, and fresh, Three Fallen Women will not disappoint.

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