Book Review: The Wives of Bath

10:16 pm

It's odd that I don't write a lot of book reviews considering the amount of books I read every week. And 2013 has so far been a good year for me, reading wise. Right from the stuff I got for my birthday last year (which falls on the end of December, spilling my reading onto the new year), to the World Book Fair to the books I've bought and been gifted, most of them have been amazing. So today I'm going to write about one of the books that I truly enjoyed reading:

The Wives of Bath

Author: Susan Swan

"We were all Wives of Bath – from the teachers who terrorized us with their bells and gatings to the overfed boarders and snobby day girls..but no matter how hard any of us struggled...Bath Ladies College was only a fiefdom in the kingdom of men."

I picked this book up from the library some months back on a hunch. I'd heard of the Canadian author Susan Swan and heard some pretty good stuff. And then I found this book sitting on the shelf. I honestly liked a lot. Why? It is a feminist book but very unconventional from the ones that I've read before... you see, the protagnist is a girl but dislikes women per se.

The Wives of Bath is set in 1963 Canada and is told from the point of view of a teenager, Mary Bradford. Mary, populary known as Mouse, seems to have (what is today refered to as) an Electra Complex. She lives with her father who is a doctor and has no time to spare to her, and her step-mother who Mouse claims is very insecure about the father-daughter relationship. Mouse seems to dislike her stepmom a lot (even though she seems to be on quite nice terms with her) and is often seen throughout the novel to imply that her step-mother is jealous of her (frankly, it seems the other way around to me). She constantly craves for her father's attention...to the point that she even wonders about his sex life a little. Yeah, I know...gross.

Anyways, Mouse finds solace in President Kennedy and all that he represents and also her hump (Mouse has a hump due to a bout of Polio she had when she was a child). Then she is shipped off to an all girls boarding school in Toronto called Bath's Ladies College. And that forms the action of her narrative. She meets an array of people like the principle Vera Vaughaun who is severe and very professional but is rumoured to be a lesbian. Then there is Tory Quinn, a very beautiful and "feminine" girl, who despite Mouse's hatred for girls, she likes. There is also Paulie Skyes who has an enormous Penis Envy (yes, a bucket load of Freud!) which is argued in the novel.

The Wives of Bath explores issues pertaining to gender studies, naturalisation of gender roles, and ways in which women are expected to think. We see an array of people who try to label gender roles and everything else into neat little boxes but we also see how that is flawed. There are people like Mouse's step-mother, Sal, who is feminine and likes shopping and has landed a rich husband and that seems to be purpose achieved in any woman's life. But we also see her struggle with an alcohol problem. Then there are people like Vera Vaughan and the other teachers at Bath's Ladies College who, like Chaucer's Wife of Bath, live by their own rules, establishing their own indentities and whose sexualities are questioned by the world at large. We also have characters like Mouse and Paulie who detest being women to the extent that they'd rather be men themselves. This, however, isn't Penis Envy in the true sense considering that they don't like the idea of being men because thet think that men are superior but because they don't know how else to escape a world, a society who are determined that women are stupid and pretty much useless.

In their own twisted ways, I see all the women in the novel, trying to scream for independence and recognition, trapped mercilessly in a time and space where the world refuses point blank to hear them. And that is something I empathize with.

This novel is brilliantly written and has its moments of humour. However, I should warn you (without giving any spoilers) that towards the end, you're in for a rather disgusting (and somewhat disturbing) twist. Also, there was a film made on this novel called Lost and Delirious and it was one of the biggest disappointments I've seen in the form of a motion picture. The film completely disregards the premise of feminist struggle, that is expressed so beautifully in the book, and is more of a parade of lesbian love-making than anything else coupled with really, really bad acting. So, yes, read the book.

My ratings for The Wives of Bath: 8/10 Highly recommended if you can stomach a bit of gore in the end.

 Other book reviews by me:
1. Beauty (by Sheri S. Tepper)
2. My best reads in 2012
3. Murder Most Fab by Julian Clary

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