I’ve been sitting on this collection for a bit, as I am struggling with articulating how I feel about the group as a whole. Each story can be (and will be) handled individually, but there is something about the overarching themes of the entire collection that has left me at a loss.
This is another collection from Amazon; it was free on Kindle Unlimited, I enjoyed their last collection, and I really love Kate Atkinson. Also- I was intrigued by the title: Out of Line- Women on the Verge of a Breakthrough. OK! Ladies taking charge and taking names? Tell me more! Kate Atkinson and Emma Donoghue? I’m in!
What was I in for?
Well, in all but one story (which still does speak to this a bit none the less) it seems that having children is what makes a woman a woman. Any and all issues, triumphs, challenges, and metrics used to measure the worth of a woman are framed around the ability (or inability) to reproduce. Many of these stories take place in the near future, some others in the not-s0-distant past, and I know that reproduction will be/has been a major driving force in women’s rights….but man (ha! that was an accident), there are plenty of us who do not want children. There are plenty of us who are not physically capable of having children. These stories don’t speak at all about anyone who is not cis-gendered female, and they barely touch at all on any non-heteronormative relationships. Being in a partnered relationship and producing/raising children is far from the only way to be a woman- and a “breakthrough” can be about more than just, well, being in a partnered relationship and producing/raising children in a *slightly* less traditional way.
Am I taking this personally? Yeah! If I am going to read it, I will be reading it through my lens! Any who, here we go:
This Telling 3/5
I had never read any Cheryl Strayed outside of Dear Sugar columns, and I was pleasantly surprised by her fiction. This story tells a multigenerational story of familial drama; a young woman has a baby out of wedlock, and she is secreted away to a home for unwed mothers until the baby is born. I was touched by the care that she gave to this scenario; so frequently we only hear horror stories about these institutions, so it was nice to see a girl who needed care being given physical and emotional care from the family running the home and from the other girls seeking shelter there as well. This is the “first” entry in the collection, but I read them out of order; I do not think the order of presentation is inherently important. Had I read this entry first, I still would have completed the collection, and I think that I would still have the same overall impression of the group.
Graceful Burdens 3/5
There are some major Handmaid’s Tale vibes here (well, in a few of these pieces really) about a world where those who are genetically superior are allowed to have children and those who aren’t are deemed without worth (women) or sterilized (men). Of course, genetically superior men can have their way with “unworthy” women, but what becomes of those babies or their mothers? This is the only piece that features queer characters, but they are non-leads who fill the role of “near-magical badass”. It’s a fast-paced little read, but ultimately asks more questions than it is willing to answer, and leans too hard on well-trod tropes.
Sweet Virginia 2/5
Eh. A career woman is cut loose from her career and finds solace in Hallmark movies. Or does she? I don’t have a lot of patience for stories about writers who aren’t respected as writers, and the main character’s obsession with being rejected by The Cut and obsessed with writing the “perfect” Modern Love piece felt like they belonged to the author instead. This piece attempts to make a statement about the unfair expectations of being a woman and needing to be a caretaker and supermom, but it gets lost in a bizarre government experiment plot. The weakest of the bunch without question.
The Contractors 4/5
This is the piece that feels the most real. A Filipino-American woman is working herself into a state of despair checking content for a mega tech corporation. She watches flagged videos of abuse, torture, murder, and more while matching them up to “community guidelines”. She’s paid next to nothing and is trapped with a deadbeat boyfriend while trying to parent her 10-year-old daughter. Her story mixes with another woman in the Philippines who works the same role at the same country and is up against an even harder wall. The injustices of this piece are so real. It’s a tough read, but a good one.
Halfway to Free 3/5
More future stuff, more population control stuff, and more stuff about how-even in a world where everything is optimal, it is impossible to simply live, as a woman, without wanting a baby so badly you’d torpedo everything in the process to scratch that biological itch. Ugh. This piece frustrated me the most of the bunch, but being a Donoghue it was well-written and captivating none the less.
Bear Witness 5/5
Mary Gaitskill delivers, without a doubt, the strongest piece of this collection- hence why her cover gets the coveted “photo” spot. I am sure she will find out about this and be overcome with emotion. This story carefully weaves together and then rips apart the lives of a Special Education teacher, her student that connected to her in a way that he did not explain to others, and another woman on the outside who is eventually drawn into their circle. It is brutal. This piece is the only one grounded fully in reality, and it is the one that hurts the most. There was a lot of gasping and walking away hand-over-mouth on my part as I slowly put the pieces together.
Shine, Pamela! Shine! 3/5
Kate Atkinson! I love her and will read any and everything she writes! I am using a ton of exclamation points here, because that is what Pamela does! Pamela is a retired RE Teacher in Scotland, and she hides her disillusionment with her life from others with blinding enthusiasm. She frequently shouts out exclamations to hide true thoughts, and she is ultimately tasked with hiding a very strange situation. It’s a minor Atkinson, and the last story in the series (if read in order), but it is an Atkinson none the less and will be respected by me as such!
All together there were three “fine!” stories sandwiched between one stinker and two stunners. Not the worst way to spend my time, but also not the best depiction of “Women on the edge” of breaking through the confines of being a woman.