With this title in the offing, let the reader be assured that this debut by author Carolyn Barber is anything but “common”. She calls it A Common Memoir. It is uncommonly good writing.
Set in the heartland of the United States at the fag-end of the last century, this memoir paints a portrait of a time familiar to my generation as children, but shown from a different perspective; through the eyes of a woman the same age as our mothers. If you have ever wondered what your mother was thinking about in 1972, chances are her thoughts were a close echo of Carolyn Barber’s although the particulars of landscape and situations may vary.
In her comfortable, Midwestern twang, that comes across even on the printed page Ms. Barber invites us to a family reunion in the first chapter and proceeds to enchant the reader with an array of relatives who cross the stage of her life. Here we are introduced to the lynchpins of the story: Carolyn, her younger sister, Judy and their mother Nellie.
The following chapters unfold in the letters, poetry and journal entries of these three fascinating women and take us through 1963 to the dawn of the new millenium.
Against the background of family life, the author illuminates many of the ideas put forth in Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique”. If you haven’t read “The Feminine Mystique”, don’t bother, read this instead, it is far more palatable.
Friedan speaks of “the problem that has no name”. Carolyn Barber describes it perfectly in her letter to her mother of May 9, 1964:
“Six weeks stuck in the house with a new baby, three cases of mumps and four of the measles are too much….Alan is irritable as he’s had to grocery shop and ride herd on the boys to pick up toys. He hasn’t washed a dish nor done laundry as he considers the house my province and the yard his…I’m blessed with healthy children, right?”
In a letter to Judy, May 1, 1969 Carolyn says:
“…I’m fed up with advertising moguls who promote this perversion of femininty. Women who eat up this crap are a brainless herd of cows following the lead cow rushing pell-mell towards the cliff. I can still grouse about my flabby body. Will we ever fit fashionable clothes and wear knee-high boots? Hah. For sure, I’ll never be as cute as Olivia Newton-John in her mini-skirts.”
…which echoes beautifully and on a practical level, Betty Friedan’s brilliant but in comparison, dry rhetoric against the ad men of her time.
The parallels are too numerous to point out in this review, but I had the feeling that Betty F. was sitting next to me, while I read this book, tapping my arm now and again and asking, “Was I right or was I right?”
There is much poetry shared between Carolyn, Judy and Nellie and it is not your garden variety rhyme. The letters and journal entries vary from touching to philosophical, from descriptions of the mundane transformed to the magical, to laugh-out-loud funny. Together they reveal extraordinary women leading (not so) ordinary lives in one of the most turbulent times of the last century.
This book is one you will want to share with your sisters, your aunts, your mother and your girlfriends. It touches our common ground, it speaks the language of all women. Of God and Women carries big ideas and it reads with the ease of a novel.
* Crossposted from my primary blog: http://oursalon.ning.com/profiles/blog/list?user=3emv6cbunmywz