I wanted a thoughtful, interesting, and possibly irreverent commentary on how the rules and regulations of Victorian society (you know- something like the title of the book) still keep us in check today, but what I got instead was a self-indulgent combination of temper tantrum and pity party.
The concept is fascinating: using examples from Victorian literature, frame how modern women are still locked into the same constraints. Sounds interesting! Sounds like something that would be well-researched and thoughtfully commented upon! Sounds like a thematically appropriate think-piece during our increasingly fraught times!
Rachel Vorona Cote leans hard into the concept of women being described as “too much”, which really has already been covered (and covered better) by Lindy West’s Shrill, Anne Helen Peterson’s Too Fat, Too Slutty, and Too Loud, and many other women who are currently writing, podcasting, and generally speaking their minds today. Cote builds a case that society is out to get women who do not fit into the molds prescribed, but really Cote seems upset that the memoir that she wanted to write wasn’t picked up so she had to force it into a mold already prescribed. The majority of this book is about Cote’s thoughts, feelings, desires, and wishes- there is a little bit of Victorian literature thrown in to adhere to the theme, but not much. Like Alice Bolin’s equally frustrating and misleading Dead Girls, Cote pulls freely from her inspirations by using summaries of whatever happens to tickle her fancy at any given moment, but those references- most of which are not Victorian in nature, theme, or time period, fail to illustrate anything other than “look at me, I too am a literary force to be reckoned with”. There is a lot of telling over showing.
This book is not entirely without charm or merit, as Cote does strive for intersectionality and inclusivity and does note on the fact that the source material at hand (specifically that of the Victorian era) more-likely-than-not fails to include people of color, non-binary people, and people who do not subscribe to hetero-normative constraints in general. Cote’s voice is clear and specific, but unfortunately her specific of choice is ME ME ME. She speaks openly about the impact of her mother’s own “too much-ness” and how it helped to shape the person that she is, and I did genuinely feel for her while she mourned her mother’s sudden passing- but what seemed to be a personal touchstone and jumping off point for the theme of the book turned into a blow-by-blow of every thought, feeling, and perceived injustice that Cote has ever experienced as a woman who is, in her words, “too much”.
TRIGGER WARNING for talk of self-harm below!
Allow me to break down a few chapters for you:
- Close – in which our author obsesses romantically over a female friend, is rebuffed, throws a tantrum, and completely ignores Greta Gerwig’s creative work in nOaH bOmBaUcH’s depiction of female friendship in Frances Ha.
- Crazy – in which our author tries to talk about the privilege and romanticizing of the crazy/beautiful dichotomy of white women like Lana Del Rey and Silvia Plath without irony while talking incessantly about her own story, once again.
- Cut – in which our author goes into excruciating detail around her own self harm; essentially putting together a how-to manual around cutting.
- Horny- in which our author regales us with tales of masturbating with a McDonald’s Happy Meal toy.
- Cheat – in which our author is unfaithful to her spouse, attempts suicide when said husband wants to leave, and is ostracized by her department for dragging her personal life into their professional world.
- Loud – in which our author is chastised for being unprofessional at work, which is OBVIOUSLY an attack on her womanhood and not accurate criticism around her utter lack of boundaries and refusal to read social situations
Cote makes an effort to tenuously tie her experiences to that of Victorian constraint and modern expectations, but it often feels like she is just checking off items on a list. Also, unsurprisingly, the modern bindings that she alludes to throughout are frequently those of her generation and older. She does not take into consideration any of the work that people of younger generations are currently doing to change, subvert, and in some cases dismantle the status quo.
All in all, Cote uses her “too much”ness as a shield; we are the enemies for not accepting her as is. Anyone – fictional or living, breathing human- who does not adhere to the rules and regulations of “too much” is the enemy. By saying “I am too much!” it means that you must kowtow to my whims despite how outlandish they may be; Cote has stamped a “right or wrong” dogma onto a world that is full of nuance and choice. I feel almost guilty in spending so much of my criticism speaking about Cote, but had the book been written about our world at large and not just acted as a shadow memoir I would have had more to say on the topic, not the person.
Are women still held to ridiculous standards and expectations? Yes! Is Cote’s story the only way that a woman can exist outside of those standards? Absolutely not.