I Love Dick (1997) by Chris Kraus

I love Dick (1997) by Chris Krauss made an appearance on my Twitter feed thanks to Elizabeth Morris’ account last Autumn when she gushed about the book and the upcoming TV adaptation. She highlighted how the book dwells on women, sex, agency, and art:

I was sold from that same minute. Not only because the book promised to be a landmark in my feminist reading, but because I had been reading about rape culture and forensics for three months and I craved something different. This hype about the book, along with Wallace Yovetich’s series on romances novels for Book Riot I realised the ‘something different’ that I wanted was a story about female desire. So, when M and I decided to exchange books in Christmas instead of splurging on presents, I knew what I wanted: I love Dick.

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Even though I finished reading the book some weeks ago, I haven’t been able to put my thoughts in a coherent order. Reading I Love Dick parallels the main characters’ chaotic descent into her desire for Dick, a man she met during a networking dinner with her husband. The woman is named after the author after – as gossip goes – she had a relationship with art critic Dick Hebdige. This much was said after the book’s cool reception twenty years ago, but after the rise of the unlikable female character, all the Nasty Women, and a constant fight to be human and not perfect, I Love Dick was rediscovered by pop culture as a chant to freedom and female agency.

As an academic the book posted some interesting and complex questions about who gets to speak in specific contexts and why. Chris is an experimental artist married to Sylvère, a professor who embodies all the post-structuralist and post-modernist theories that I live by, and that I write about. However, as the couple goes to dinner with Dick, Chris finds herself unable to join the conversation. She feels an outsider to a world – Academia – that is masculine, theoretical and patronising to women and women’s experience. As the novel progresses, we learn about Chris’ past as an artist in NYC, and the many lived experiences that have shaped her into the person that falls immediately head over heels in love with a stranger.

Sylvère keeps socializing what I’m doing through with you. Labeling it through other people’s eyes – Adultery in Academe, John Updike meets Marivaux… Faculty Wife Throws Herself At Husband’s Colleague. This presumes that there is something inherently grotesque, unspeakable about femaleness, desire. But what I’m going through with you is real and happening for the first time.

The novel is divided into two parts. The first one – ‘Scenes from a marriage’ – presents the reader with a third-person narration of the events the set the plot in motion and how Chris shares her infatuation with Sylvère and they jointly decide to start writing letters to Dick. In them, they describe how the stranger is profoundly changing the way they relate to each other with desire taking central stage, as the couple had given up on sex for a few years now. Their sexual relationship relinked, they wonder how the introduction of a third person may change their identity as a couple, but also individually (*). The author’s vast knowledge of literature and postmodern theory allows for references to every unfaithful partner in literature, as well as even more dark references that can only be gasped at during second or third readings. Because if there is something that characterises I Love Dick that is the impossibility to control the text and pin it down to references known by the reader, a process that mirrors the beautiful yet chaotic event of falling in love and seeing your life turned upside down and blurry for a period of time.

The second part of the book is called ‘Every letter is a love letter’ and it takes place after Chris abandons Sylvère and reappropriates the relationship the couple had with him as hers only. During this period she is travelling across the United States and she presents herself to Dick by sharing her past with him: How she worked at a strip club, how she is dismissed because of her art, her constant struggle against anorexia, and how she ended up marrying Sylviere. As someone interested in the representation of eating disorders, I was shocked by the blunt description of Chris’ necessity to stop eating sometimes and the happiness that comes with the restrain and the supposed control derived from the starving. The main character’s lived experience emerges in this part of the book as her own, and she unties herself from Sylvères-wife through her desire for Dick. This does not mean that the main character replaces one partner from another as Dick is just a recipient for her letters and the only voice that we hear is hers. Instead, the return of her sexual desire brings back her desire to live and to exist outside institutions and discourses that deem her a secondary character, a side-passenger. The ending, as it happens with every infatuated state, is a crash against reality reminded the reader that the process is as important as the goal.

The fact that Chris Krauss (author) and Chris Krauss (main character) seem to be the same person posts a lot of question about women in the arts and how we have been told to dismiss the female voice and avoid questioning why it is not being heard. I Love Dick challenged the status quo and inscribes two women’s lived experience as a female artist in pop culture: the fictional Chris’, and the real-life Chris’. With the upcoming television adaptation starring Kathryn Hahn as Chris and Kevin Bacon as Dick, the wold is about to be taken by storm by a tour de force on what it means to be a woman and dare to have any kind of desire for one’s self.

In short, I Love Dick by Chris Krauss is an essential read for anyone interested in women’s agency in art, feminism, female desire, relationships and postmodernism. It is not an easy read, and the process will be plagued with chaos, infatuation with the book, hate towards the book, and a necessity to run back home to read one more chapter. But that is exactly the power of the book: Its ability to make us feel like Chris does, with no Dick whatsoever.

(*) If you are interested in how the introduction of a third-party may affect a couple I highly recommend the Netflix show You Me Her (2016 – ), where a couple gets obsessed with a female escort that eventually enters their relationship in nonprofessional terms.

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh was one of the most talked-about books of 2016, especially as it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Not only that, but some of my favourite book bloggers kept raving about it, and after Naomi from The Writes of Woman said I would love it, I knew I had to give it a try. On the release of the paperback, I was sent a review copy by Vintage Books. Thank you!

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Eileen tells the story of twenty-four year old Eileen Dunlop just before her disappears from her stereotypically New England town in 1964. In the first chapter, we learn that she is telling the story from the present, fifty years after everything happened, and she warns us: ‘I was not myself back then. I was someone else. I was Eileen’. That Eileen works as a secretary at a boy’s prison while she cares for her alcoholic father. One day, a smart, elegant redhead called Rebecca appears at the prison and disrupts Eileen’s life. By the end of the first chapter, Eileen is clear about what the rest of the story is about: ‘In a week, I would run away from home and never go back. This is the story of how I disappeared’. The rest of the novel is organised daily, with Eileen and Rebecca’s relationship building up, slowly progressing to the day that, surprisingly for the reader, Eileen will be brave enough to break away with everything she has ever known.

So far, so good. The novel’s structure very much responds to classic crime fiction, with tension building up each day, making the reader wonder what path Eileen and Rebecca’s relationship will take. What will happen to make Eileen run away? Eileen has been widely described as a psychological thriller, and it is. But I was particularly interested in Moshfegh’s statements about the writing, and how they relate to the general perception we have about crime fiction as a highly structured subgenre beloved by the general public. In a very disruptive interview for The Guardian, Moshfegh said:

 [I] wanted to write a novel to start a career where I could live off publishing books. That was my prime motivation for writing Eileen. I thought, fine: I’ll play this game. And I still feel like I’m playing it […] Because there are all these morons making millions of dollars, so why not me? I’m smart and talented and motivated and disciplined and … talented: did I say that already? I said: fuck it. Which was also: fuck them. I was pretty hostile. I thought: I’ll show you how easy this is.

Although I am perfectly fine with the author’s desire to make a living off art- a right every artist should have – I was troubled by her implications that thrillers (and/or crime fiction in general) are a game to be played. As in any other subgenre, there are good books and bad books, but my own experience as a reader is that a good crime or mystery novel takes a lot of work, and is not an easy task. Moshfegh’s lack of knowledge about crime fiction was made patent when she continued:

Most people who pick up a book labelled ‘thriller’ or ‘mystery’ may not be expecting to confront troubling ideas about women in society … I couldn’t be like, Here’s my freak book … So I’ve disguised the ugly truth in a kind of spiffy noir package.

I wholeheartedly disagree. Good crime fiction’ raison d’être is to open discussions about gender, race, social class and morality, the very way Eileen does. Because let me make this clear right here right now: Eileen is a good novel, not a fascinating one, especially for crime fiction readers. The whole text feels like a character study of the anti-femme fatale, and that is fine. Gildas no longer run the world. But, going back to the consideration of crime fiction and popular literature, I am afraid Eileen is built on a conservative approach to crime fiction as a minor subgenre that is meant to just sell books in a package. Said package refers to the overused formulas of genre fiction, that, however: ‘ease the transition between old and new ways of expressing things and thus contribute to cultural unity’ (John G. 1976:  35 – 36). After these disruptive statements, Moshfegh was interviewed by the team at Virago, and she admitted she did not like how she came off in her Guardian interview as arrogant (whether or not this was damage control, that is for each of us to judge):

Eileen is plagued with scatological references, as well as vivid descriptions of the main character’s lack of personal hygiene, and her narcissistic personality. There are also references to Eileen’s virginity and her struggle to negotiate her sexual desire with her own body, which she finds disgusting. Moshfegh has admitted she has suffered eating issues since her adolescence, making her main character an informed user of laxatives, enemas and a compulsive control of her eating habits. Unhappy with her life, and unable to escape it, present-day Eileen describes her past self as a prude who wanted to erase her own body and exert control over her only subject: Herself.

All these characteristic definitely make Eileen a different book, as it insists on still necessary conversation of including non-likable female characters in contemporary literature. Instead of a thriller, I would label Eileen as a complex character study about femininity, domestic roles, family duties, morality, institutionalisation, and the importance of empowering women through knowledge of their own bodies and the outside world. I would definitely recommend it, especially after all the blurb. However, if you are an avid crime fiction reader, Moshfegh does not adhere to the tradition as much as she think she does. The main crimes perpetrated in Eileen are the main character’s total subjection to her father, and her desperate desire to escape her miserable life, which, from a feminist perspective, earn the book a recommendation.

The Ice Lands by Steinar Bragi

I was contacted by MacMillan last month to get to know their latest translated author, Steinar Bragi whose novel The Icelands came out on the 25th October. Even though I do not read much Scandi crime fiction, I enjoy it a lot when I finally step out of my British/American comfort zone. So, after taking a look at the book I decided it was dark enough to make it to my Halloween reading list. But I did not know what I had in my hands…

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The IcelandsHálendið in the original Icelandic, published in 2011 and translated into English by Lorenz Garcia – tells the story of two couples, Hfran and Vigdís, and Egill and Anna, who embark on a trip to Iceland’s volcanic desert. When a storm takes them out of the road and they hit a farm, they are forced to spend the night with the two old farmers who live there. From the moment they arrive they realise that the farm is completely isolated, and the old couple have no visible way of making a living. So, how do they survive? And are they really alone?

When I first started reading Bragi’s novel I expected the characteristic raw narrative of the high quality Scandi crime fiction I have read in the past years. And I found exactly that. The coldness that oozes from the page, the dirt, the darkness. It was all there. What I did not know was that The Ice Lands is a horror story, a brutal tale of survival with bizarre glimpses into Iceland’s folklore that would terrify me. I read the novel in three seatings during Halloween’s weekend, and although I was scared, I could not put it down. From the very first page it is easy to realise there is something off. But is it all in Egill’s mind after too many joints? Is it part of Hfran’s ego? Or is it the Icelandic setting, a character on its own, clouding their vision with black sandstorms?

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Sandstorm in Iceland – via Reykjavik Cars (who also have tips on how not get caught in one)

The four main characters take turns as narrators and each of them make the story move forward from a different angle. Even though the reader knows nothing about the characters in the very beginning, they share their backgrounds as they try to link what has happened to them in the past with current events. Among those currents events, the 2010’s economic crisis becomes a pivotal moment for the four of them. While Hfran and Egill enjoed a luxurious lifestyle, they are struggling to keep their image among Iceland’s important businessmen. On the other hand, Anna and Vigdís are self-made women who have been working hard for years as a journalist and as a therapist respectively. Despite the different economic backgrounds of the couples, the women’s tales seem completely separated from the men’s, giving them more substance than just the role of girlfriends.

As for the horror, it is clear since the moment the jeep is crashed that there is something off. The Icelandic weather makes it impossible to survive outdoors, so there is no option for them but to take shelter at the couple’s home, and the couple has no alternative to this. Or do they? As these four city Millennials enter the old couple’s homes we can see their social prejudices by their appropriation of their hosts’ space, which very much feels like a colonisation. The old couple seems to agree to this arrangement until we realise that the narrators intrusion into their lives is taken a step beyond. How? That is yours to discover.

I sincerely enjoyed The Ice Lands, probably the first horror book that I have read in my whole life. The characteristic blending of literary genre and social criticism of Scandi literature made it easier to keep reading even when I was scared, although I will admit I rushed through the last 30 pages because it was too much. The writing is raw, like the desert itself, and it would be easier to be fooled into feling the dirt of the characters in one’s face, with the sand giving everything a grayish tint. As a last recommendation, this book contains vivid descriptions of physical violence (animals included), which could  upset some people and animal lovers like myself. In any case, I highly recommend The Ice Lands as we are not usually offered an opportunity into Iceland’s’ horror literature, and this seems like the best place to start.

The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie

The Portable Veblen came highly recommended on Twitter by Anna James and Elizabeth (then Preston) Morris and compared to the quirky Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple, which I did not really enjoy when I first read it, but have come to appreciate as time goes by. So, when I learnt I would be spending a week in the UK, I made a list of books that I needed to purchase and The Portable Veblen was at the top. Luckily for me I found it for £2 with some minor damage to the cover.

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The first chapters were so sweet I had to picture the book with gummy bears!

Veblen is a young woman about to marry Paul, the first man that she has ever established a connection with. This is the story of how they got engaged, how they planned the wedding, how to make their very different families connect, and the medical industry. You have read it correctly. Paul works for a medical company researching a tool that the US army could use in cases of brain hemorrhage, Veblen herself has some mental health issues, and her mother is a hypocondriac. As you can imagine this mix makes up for a quirky novel. And I forgot to tell you that Veblen has a relationship with a squirrel that enters her house, Paul wants to catch, and she finally sets free – although the squirrel follows her across California.

With a plot like that, The Portable Veblen is a promising, quirky book. But I am afraid it does not deliver the same way Bernadette did. I tried to establish a connection with Veblen but found it almost impossible, not because she is unlikable, on the contrary, because she is too bland. Years spent with her hypochondriac and attention-seeker mother have erased Veblen, so that she does not make up for an interesting main character. She is not sure she is in love with Paul, and his behaviour set off some alarms whilst reading, but at the end of the day this novel is a love story between two people with special families. And although we all have special families and issues that we wish would never see the light of day, it is not so for Paul and Veblen. Their families are unnerving, but eventually they do almost nothing about it.

I really wanted to enjoy the book, and I have to admit the first chapters were very sweet, but as a whole I was a bit disappointed. However, as I was thrilled by the beginning of Veblen’s story I gave it 3 stars at Goodreads and I truly believe this book has a target audience and I was the problem, rather than the novel itself. I am writing this review a month after finishing reading just because I found the novel on my desk and I had the feeling I had some reviews left to write. But the book had completely escaped my mind.

Now, I am curious to hear what you thought of the book if you read it, or if by reading what the blurb says you would be interested:

The Portable Veblen is a dazzlingly original novel that’s as big-hearted as it is laugh-out-loud funny. Set in and around Palo Alto, amid the culture clash of new money and old (antiestablishment) values, and with the specter of our current wars looming across its pages, The Portable Veblen is an unforgettable look at the way we live now. A young couple on the brink of marriage—the charming Veblen and her fiancé Paul, a brilliant neurologist—find their engagement in danger of collapse. Along the way they weather everything from each other’s dysfunctional families, to the attentions of a seductive pharmaceutical heiress, to an intimate tête-à-tête with a very charismatic squirrel.

Veblen (named after the iconoclastic economist Thorstein Veblen, who coined the term “conspicuous consumption”) is one of the most refreshing heroines in recent fiction. Not quite liberated from the burdens of her hypochondriac, narcissistic mother and her institutionalized father, Veblen is an amateur translator and “freelance self”; in other words, she’s adrift. Meanwhile, Paul—the product of good hippies who were bad parents—finds his ambition soaring. His medical research has led to the development of a device to help minimize battlefield brain trauma—an invention that gets him swept up in a high-stakes deal with the Department of Defense, a Bizarro World that McKenzie satirizes with granular specificity.

As Paul is swept up by the promise of fame and fortune, Veblen heroically keeps the peace between all the damaged parties involved in their upcoming wedding, until she finds herself falling for someone—or something—else. Throughout, Elizabeth McKenzie asks: Where do our families end and we begin? How do we stay true to our ideals? And what is that squirrel really thinking? Replete with deadpan photos and sly appendices, The Portable Veblen is at once an honest inquiry into what we look for in love and an electrifying reading experience. (less)

The Muse by Jessie Burton

Author Jessie Burton became an international sensation when her first novel The Miniaturist became a best-seller across Europe. Back then my Twitter feed was full of praise for Burton and her debut novel. However, the story did not appeal to me at all, and after discussing this with other bloggers I decided I did not have to read a book just because everyone loved it. When Burton’s next novel The Muse came out last June I knew it was the right time to discover the author everyone loves. Thanks to Picador for the review copy.

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The Muse tells two different stories, both with women as main characters. In 1967 Odelle Bastien, young aspiring writer recently arrived from Trinidad, clims one of London’s most prestigious galleries to start a job that will change her life. Meanwhile, Olive Schloss moved to Spain in 1936 with her Jewish family trying to escape central Europe’s madness. What she does not know is that Spain is about to enter a madness of its own.How these two stories relate, and how both women are connected are up to readers to discover. More information can be found on the backcover of the book, but I think The Muse is one of those books that has to be discovered on its own. If you are feeling brave, I suggest you stop reading here and pick up a copy without doing more research.

The novel is a meditation on art, home, love, and the immigrant experience that will hit close to home to European readers who, like Odelle and Olive, are either experiencing or feeling powerless about the suffering that is happening. In any case, Burton makes the immigration experience a subjective one, where people are not part of waves of immigration or displaced groups, but rather individiuals with feelings, desires and aspirations:

There were tears, of course, mainly sobbed into my sagging pillow. The pressure of desire curled inside me. I was ashamed of it, and yet it defined me. I had bigger things I wanted to do, and I’d done five years of waiting. In the meantime, I wrote revenge poems about the English weather, and lied to my mother that London was heaven. (Odelle, 1967).

As a young, educated, black woman living in London in 1967 Odelle is faced with the lie of colonial education, that is, the terrible lies the Empire told about the motherland in the colonies. She also struggles with her identity, as she does not feel Caribbean nor does she feel English. Who is she? And what is she living in the inbetweenness when she was praised in Trinidad for her English manners and education? Odelle also has to face the reality behind the colonial enterprise and the racial hierarchies still alive so that when she starts dating a white, English boy, she is openly insulted by an old lady.

Meanwhile, Olive is the teenage daughter an affluent European couple. Her father is a Jewish art merchant escaping the horrors of Vienna, while her mother clings to her past as a flapper and her fading beauty. But Olive – who uncanningly embodies the current hipster aesthetics and lifestyle – just wants to be an artist. At the beginning of her story she is desperate to escape Spain and move to London, where she has been admitted into a presitigious art school. But things change when she meets Teresa and Isaac, working-class local sibblings desperate to make a living out the newly arrived Schloss family. Burton did a great job of portraying Andalusia’s poverty and socio-economic troubles, but also the ideological tension that preceeded the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939). Isaac is ‘a red’ with connections to Malaga’s annrchist groups, but also a social activist. However, his ideology does not prevent him from being gender-equality blind, and from performing a masculinity verging on the ‘Spanish macho’ stereotype: Dark, strong, a little bit rough, a fighter, you can imagine Olive’s response to him.

Luckily for female and feminist readers Olive is aware of gender roles and she struggles to perform her identity as an artist and as a young, desirable woman:

The artist as naturally male was such a widely held presupposition that Olive had come at times to believe it herself. As a nineteen-year-old girl, she as on the underside; the dogged, plucky mascot of amateurship. (Olive, 1936)

Do you know how many of them [artist sold by Olive’s father] are women, Isaac? None. Not one. Women can’t do it, you see. They haven’t got the vision, although last time I checked they had eyes, and hands, and hearts and souls. (Olive, 1936)

In 1967 Odelle seems to feel free to be a woman artist, although Burton wisely added racial diversity to the struggle posting questions about race, social class and ethnicity and what we, as a society, believe to be art.

The Muse is probably the best book I have read this year until now. Sitting down and opening the book – a work of art on its own, as the cover is one of the most beautiful I have seen – was a pleasure that took me out of a reading slump and reminded me why I love books, and art, and stories.

Shame by Melanie Finn

When I read a quote from Shame by Melanie Finn on Elizabeth Preston’s and Simon Savidge‘s Twitter feeds, I knew I had to get my hands on it. After some research I found out that the book had been published last year and that the team behind it thought it was one of the best things they had ever published. Thanks to Weidenfeld & Nicholson for the review copy.

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The first pages of Shame describe how the main character, Pilgrim Jones, sees a small gesture between her husband and an unknown woman in a meeting in Switzerland. It was something small, maybe a smile, maybe the way they were too close, but Pilgrim knows there is more there. Fast forward ten months and her husband has left her for Elise, who is now pregnant with their child, and Pilgrim has been left to live in a small Swiss village where she no longer feels comfortable. Fast forward a few months, and we find Pilgrim travelling through Tanzania, trying to make something of her new life after she did something terrible back in Europe.

Shame is one of the most powerful psychological novels I have ever read. Although I expected the African setting to be one of the main characters, Finn – who has been living in Africa most of her life – has managed to normalise it, yet she has included magic and religious traditions that will still make the narrative exotic. What we experience when reading Shame is Pilgrim’s own feelings with loss at its core, and the dread of the mundane and everyday life that comes from the grieving process. But, Pilgrim is not just mourning her marriage, she is also trying to hold herself accountable for what she did. Is there shame on it? Did grieve make her do it? How is she supposed to feel? I especially enjoyed the interrogation of how one is supposed to feel in those hard, crucial moments in life.

However, I had one big problem with Shame: it tells more than Pilgrim’s story. Although the first half is completely devoted to her, the second half tells the stories of the people she has been meeting during her journey. Among them is a female African doctor who has to do with almost no medicines, and who can only see her patients die while she holds their hands. Among them is also the detective investigating what happened to her in Switzerland, so that part of the second half of the novel feels like a crime fiction book:

Detail established the truth. The colour of the dog. Without detail, truth was a metaphysically unstable idea: too general, too big; cause and effect going all the way back to first dates, to ancestors surviving winter storms, to dinosaurs, to organisms in a puddle.

All of the other characters are also in Africa, and al of them are secondary characters during Pilgrim’s narrative, but Finn gives them the space to find their own voices and tell their stories. I think what Finn wanted to do was to show that everyone has a story, no matter their nationality, no matter their ethnicity. Grieve can be all-consuming and isolating, but also selfish. Pilgrim is trying to find her new identity as a young, American, divorced woman, but so are other characters.

Shame is a complex psychological novel that explores grief and self-understanding in a unique way. The text, haunting and suffocating, reminds the reader that feelings may be contextual, but are above all personal. We do not have to feel shame just because we feel we should. And that’s fine.

The journey is all, the end is nothing.

 

 

The Ages of Lulu (1989) by Almudena Grandes

Even though I am Spanish, I am not the biggest fan of Spanish literature. In fact, it is very seldom that I pick up a book either written by a Spanish author or translated into Spanish. However, last March I enrolled on a course about ‘Women in Literature’ that ended up being ‘Women in Spanish Literature’. Some of the authors rang a bell while others I knew: it is one of those times when you know the names and the titles of their works, but you have never read any of the novels. It was with this frame of mind that I realised I had to read The Ages of Lulu (Las edades de Lulú in the original Spanish), a novel written in 1989 by Almudena Grandes.

The Ages of Lulu by Almudena Grandes

What Goodreads says:

At just fifteen years old, Lulu, a “round, hungry little girl,” finds that her erotic cravings are already powerfully established when she is seduced by a family friend, Pablo, twelve years her senior. This initial encounter incites the violent power play that drives an adult Lulu through a series of increasingly titillating sexual exploits. Always fascinated by the thin line separating decency and morality from perversion, Lulu gains the courage to explore the darker side of her carnal desires—but as her forays become increasingly desperate, the world of illicit and dangerous sex threatens to engulf her completely.


A groundbreaking novel of sexual exploration, The Ages of Lulu sparked international controversy and was an overnight sensation when it was first published in Spain fifteen years ago. It won the Sonrisa Vertical Prize for erotic fiction, and was made into a film starring Javier Bardem.

The author:

Spanish author Almudena Grandes

Almudena Grandes was born in Madrid in 1960. She is known for her columns for the centre-left wing newspaper El País, where she explores current politics, friendship, family and whatever issue she thinks fit. She is also a member of Izquierda Unida (‘United Left’), Spain’s traditional left wing party. She writes novels, but has also published a few short story collections and plays.

Historical context:

The Ages of Lulu is an erotic novel and its importance for Spanish literature comes directly from the time of its publication. Spain was subjected to a fascist dictatorship from 1939 to 1975 under the rule of Coronel Francisco Franco and his party, the ‘Falange’. His dictatorship was informed by Catholicism and a national movement based on the Castilian culture, and he tried to erase local traditions and languages. Opposing the dictatorship meant risking your life, and as a consequence many people just tried to survive as they could. Just to establish a parallel, think of early 20th century Ireland, and you will get a glimpse of what it was to live in Spain during the dictatorship.

This very brief historical context is important for the analysis of The Ages of Lulu due to the imposition of Catholic imaginary upon women during the dictatorship. Pilar Primo de Rivera – sister to the Falange founder – was in charge of the ‘Sección Femenina’ (‘Female Section’), an organisation that prescribed adequate behaviour and lifestyle for women. Due to the importance of Catholicism, the most influential image for women during the dictatorship was Virgin Mary, embodying the contradictions of being a virgin and a mother at the same time. For Spanish women born in the 20th century this meant a total lack of sexual education – except for a few who came from left-wing, powerful families and managed to buy the pill and condoms under the counter, risking imprisonment – and the imposition of virginal and supposedly pure values. This lead to a normalisation of a troubled relationship with female sexuality in which female desire was seen as dirty, and the label ‘whore’ was easily impossed on anyone who did not supress their libido. There was a high rate of teenage pregnancy, single motherhood was forbidden and despised and the image of the Angel in the House was expected of married women and mothers.

Once Franco was dead and Spain slowly caught up with the rest of the West, a new cultural movement emerged in Madrid called ‘La Movida’ in the 1980’s. To put it briefly, it was time to party after so many years of oppression, and ‘La Movida’ promised happiness and liberation along with parties, drugs, sex, and a lot of music. It was also a celebration of fluid sexualities and homosexuality – punished by the regime with the death penalty – and it aimed to break away with traditional gender stereotypes and role models with the celebration of travestism.

La Movida (Spain, 1980's)

The Ages of Lulu (1989):

When Grandes wrote and published The Ages of Lulu in 1989 Spain had been enjoying a democracy for 14 years, but moral values and certain codes of behaviour inherited from the regime were still very much present in everyday life. Sadly, they still are in 2016. So, the publishing of an erotic novel, narrated on the first person by a sexually active and desiring teenage girl became a national sensation and success. The novel is a bildungsroman told from a sexual perspective and follows Lulu from her first sexual encounter to a final one. In between you can find stories about being a daughter, a mother and a friend.

Las edades de Lulú

It is now time to come clear about the novel: it is very dated and dependant on the context it was written on. I found it provocative just for the sake of being so, and some scenes surprised me in a bad way. Lulu’s relationship with Pablo, the boy she has her first sexual encounter with, is still quite patriarchal and victim to an imaginary in which grown women’s sexual desire is not quite developed yet. That is, Lulu is aware of her sexual desire and she satisfies it with men and women alike, but the novel portrays this sexual desire as a rebellion against her Catholic and conservative education. As Foucault would say a rebellion does not make you free since it compels you to do the exact opposite of what you have been told to do. It just a masquerade, a reversal of the dominant discourse. But, at the time the novel was published this rebellion was the only way in which women could openly explore their sexuality and feel free.

As a consequence the novel feels like reading a teenager’s diary, a rebel without a cause (the ending is very conservative), a need for attention and a need for freedom. And I still liked it, especially the first half. Grandes makes a huge effort to inscribe sex and sexuality into everyday life, something is still absent from contemporary fiction, and produces a counter-discourse that assures the female reader it is OK to have sexual needs in whatever form they present themselves. The novel could very well be related to the 1980’s and 1990’s texts feminist and philosophical texts that exposed normative sexuality as an opening of located orifices as rites of passage.

The verdict:

Although dated, The Ages of Lulu is a landmark in Spanish fiction and it should be considered a masterpiece of the post-dictatorship feminist movement. Despite its conservative background ideas and some gross – yet very interesting – scenes, the novel depicts the carpe diem state of mind of the 1980’s, when Western culture finally entered Spain and generations who had been oppressed for decades were granted the right to do as they wanted. In this case it meant lots of sex, drugs and music. And in this case it was what the country needed.

While I was reading the novel I felt that maybe this is what readers who are disappointed with Fifty Shades of Grey should read. Both novels present a young woman’s sexual life and their relationship with an older man who tries to subject them. The Ages of Lulu is not shy in portraying non-normative sexual behaviours and practices, and in doing so is trying to inscribe them as an option, rather than a quirk. However, I will say again that the novel takes great pleasure in presenting these practices – like a rebellious teenager who knows she is doing something forbidden – and successfully translates that pleasure to the reader.

I would highly recommend The Ages of Lulu to anyone, especially women readers, in order to explore how oppression and extreme fake moral values can end up producing the opposite of what they wanted. However, if I took something from reading the novel – and this is the main reason why I am publishing this review – is to be happy and enjoy life. Grandes has reminded me that I am lucky to have the freedom to explore the many, many options and paths that life has to offer which are not planned or scheduled: they can only be lived through.