Her by Harriet Lane

If there was a poralizing book around this summer in your blogs, that was Her by Harriet Lane. Some people loved it, some people hated it, but what could not be argued is that this was the book everyone read this summer. So, I asked for a review copy, pretty confident that this would be a book that I would love. Well, as I have said, it is a controversial story.

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From Goodreads:

You don’t remember her–but she remembers you.

On the face of it, Emma and Nina have very little in common. Isolated and exhausted by early motherhood, Emma finds her confidence is fading fast. Nina–sophisticated, generous, effortlessly in control–seems to have all the answers.

It’s easy to see why Emma is drawn to Nina. But what does Nina see in her?

A seemingly innocent friendship slowly develops into a dangerous game of cat and mouse as Nina eases her way into Emma’s life. Soon, it becomes clear that Nina wants something from the unwitting Emma–something that might just destroy her.

The first thing that called my attention when the book arrived was its size. I expected a chunky edition, but Her is a small hardback with 235 pages. I was surprised at this, because taking into account what I had read, the idea could very well be expanded for at least 500 pages. But not with Lane’s approach to narration. Actually, once I finished reading the novel, I thought the size was perfect: Lane shifts the narrative between Nina and Emma so that, sometimes, you read what is seen – from the outside – as the same event twice. But, is there such a thing as an objective account of a scene? Her shows that there is not. The same little detail told from Emma’s perspective differs very much from Nina’s account of it. This technique is fantastic so that we realise there is not such thing as truth, and probably we can recall the last time we argued over a matter of perception with a beloved one, thinking ours was the right way to see it. However, in narrative this can be a little bit tiring, even when Lane makes a great effort to highlight that each scene has two narrations.

But, what really lies behind Her is the idea that the Other is always better. Nina believes Emma has the perfect middle-class, late motherhood and even though she sometimes pities her, Nina actually believes Emma’s life to be better. The same happens the other way round, since Emma sees Nina as a sophisticated, Bohemian-yet-uper-class artist. None of the women’s perceptions fits the other, but they react and build their relationship through these perceptions. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence has taken new meanings in the 21st century with social media. Via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, we are able to expose our lives, to show off how much fun we had, how cool that night downtown at the movies was. But this differs from reality: our lives are both lived and imagined. Lane has taken this theme to the extreme to create a psychological thriller based only in two women’s perception of each other.

Lane also explores motherhood through Emma’s character. I have always been suspicious of perfect portraits of motherhood, but Lane takes it a step further and highlights the difference between what is expected and what a mother really feels. Emma is, in Nina’s words, ‘incapacitated by motherhood, like a Victorian morality print’, crying ‘the housewife’s lament’ and always trying to keep her children quiet and safe. Lane focalizes this criticism through Nina, who also claims repulsively that Emma is always touching their children, highlighting the importance of bodies in motherhood. But, when focalizes through Emma, her ‘housewife’s lament’ is only a little articulation of the stress, the chaos and the overworking she suffers. She is busy ‘with the unimportant details that no one else bothers with. The questions no one else can answer’ and is happily reminded by her mother in-law of how lucky she is to have her husband, Ben, cook her dinner every once in a while, because it does taste good, doesn’t it? ‘I think of all the little meals that fall to me, which are eaten without anyone really noticing the crispness of the potatoes or the bite of the green beans: the modest everyday dishes that pass entirely without comment, completely executed and palatable. Isn’t Ben good? I suppose he is.’ So, Lane’s deconstruction of gendered domestic roles through Emma’s sad and almost desperate ironic comments is food for thought, for every time we were children and sat to have lunch taking it for granted.

So, Her by Harriet Lane is a psychological thriller, but I think it is much more. She deconstructs gendered assumptions in society and Emma’s scenes and inner monologues about motherhood could very well fuel a whole evening in a book club. However, you may get a little bored by the middle part. Do not worry, Lane will come full force in the next chapter.

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22 thoughts on “Her by Harriet Lane

  1. MarinaSofia says:

    Spot on and shrewdly observed, as always, Elena. I found the gender discussions and the overwhelm of motherhood more interesting than the ‘thrillerish’ element of the story. Subversive stuff, I thought, but done in an unobtrusive, smoothly-flowing style…

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    • Elena says:

      Thank you, Marina. I actually found myself feeling more interested in Emma’s motherhood than the ‘why does Nina want her so badly?’ storyline. I am not a mother, so I haven’t experienced either the good or the bad parts of it, but I think Lane did a great job because that is how I would feel if I had Emma’s life!

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  2. cleopatralovesbooks says:

    Love your review and for me this was a 5* read for the precise observations made about the lives really lived by women and the pressures exerted both by ourselves and trying to live up to expectations, particularly of motherhood.

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    • Elena says:

      Thank you, Cleo. I gave it 4* because in the middle of the book, when there are scenes told by both women I got a little bored even though they were different. I longed for more alone-time with Emma and, now that I think about it, a look at female sexuality. Lane would have nailed it, I’m pretty sure and sexuality for a new mom must be something interesting, tough and complex to write about, but something that needs attention as well. I felt as if Emma’s and Nina’s marriages were a faΓ§ade.

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      • cleopatralovesbooks says:

        You make really interesting points while reflecting on this book. I think the fact that Emma was coming to terms with the fact that motherhood changes everything for a woman (and in my opinion the same doesn’t hold true for a man) and she hadn’t expected it to be quite like it has turned out to be so naturally her marriage is being reassessed under the knowledge. Nina was so bound up in her own issues that I don’t suppose she had much time to assess her marriage.

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    • Elena says:

      Thank you, Li! It seems many of you know her previous work and it was quite known at the time it was published, but this is the first time I read Lane. Do you recommend me Alys Always?

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  3. susanosborne55 says:

    Excellent review, Elena. Some sharp insights about the way Lane shows the two women’s very different perspectives and the way that motherhood can skew the gender dynamic even in a good relationship. I was in the ‘loved it’ camp as you’ve probably gathered!

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    • Elena says:

      Thank you, Susan. I did, yes, although at first I thought I had read in your blog that both characters had very similar voices, but I checked and was very happy that you, Naomi and I (why do we always end up sharing very similar opinions?) liked it.

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  4. FictionFan says:

    Haha! Looks like I’m the only hater, then! Thanks for the link. πŸ™‚

    I thought there was some good stuff in the book – it was the ending I really disliked. But I also felt the two voices weren’t different enough, and quickly tired of being told every event twice. And as for the motherhood stuff? I admit, I’m very tired of moaning middle-class mothers. Contraception is the answer! πŸ˜‰

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    • Elena says:

      Oh, so it was your review I was thinking about! I totally agree that sometimes they felt like two sides of the same coin.

      And, well, middle-class motherhood has to be desmitified even nowadays, but of course… there are ways to do it. Motherhood is different to every woman, but it’s not the pink/blue themed heaven they sell on ads. Sadly, we are still not over it (yet).

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