Author's message buried under character's complaints
By Laura Zigman. Warner Books. 288 pages. $23.99.
A funny thing happened while I was reading the new novel by author Laura Zigman: somewhere within the chapters, I became a feminist.
Well, not the bra-burning, man-hating, "Don't you ever open a door for me" kind of feminist. Instead, the kind that thinks it's perfectly OK for a woman to be the breadwinner in the household and for the husband to take care of the children. The kind that would consider a woman old-fashioned if she felt it was her right to stay at home, and lament if she had to go to work.
Perhaps that's why I found Piece of Work so frustrating.
Zigman's latest novel (she also wrote the well-received Animal Husbandry) is the story of a former career woman, now stay-at-home mom, who must return to the workforce after her husband loses his job. Julia Einstein is excessively stereotypical - the kind of mom who doesn't care what she looks like, spends all her time obsessing over her child, who can't find an outfit in her closet that isn't either stained or outdated.
But then her husband is fired from a high-paying job and for months the family lives on savings while he unsuccessfully looks for work - you know, because it's his responsibility to bring home the bacon.
Finally, after dozens of pages of learning more about Julia's child than I ever wanted to know about my own niece, the author sends her character back to the office.
And then the "woe is me" begins. We read about how unfair it is that she has to head to an office while her husband watches her now-toddler grow up. And we learn that Julia is angry every time her husband steps up to the plate and takes his role as stay-at-home dad seriously - and, in her own words, does a better job than she did.
Now, I'm cognizant of the fact that I might just not get it. I mean, I'm a working woman who has no children to pull at my motherly heartstrings as I walk out the door. Maybe I just can't understand the emotions involved.
So I asked a friend who stays at home with her three boys for her reaction to the plot. She admitted that yes, she'd be a bit resentful if she was thrown back into the workforce, and yes, she probably would complain. But, she also recognizes that she is fortunate to be able to stay home with her children.
And if she did return to her career, she said she'd surely not complain to the dozens of working women that she knows.
That's where this novel goes wrong.
It focuses so intently on the miseries of the newly working mother - expressed in one run-on sentence after another - that it becomes a cumbersome read for those of us who head to the office every day.
I work with great moms who have careers. And I know several households where the women work outside the home while their husbands raise the kids. Therefore, it was hard to dedicate time to a woman who believes that only she should raise her son and laments that "Life was short; time was precious; children didn't stay young forever." Very true. But it's nothing she worried about when her husband left for work every morning.
Somewhere in the middle of the book, Julia gets a job - after her first attempt - returning to her career as a celebrity publicist. Here, finally, we learn what kind of woman Julia could be.
If you sift through her complaints and whiny monologues, you find a woman who saves the day for her has-been client and is still home in time to walk in the neighborhood Halloween parade with her son.
So, there is a balance between motherhood and a career. And Julia Einstein proves that a woman can be successful at both.
Perhaps that is what the author is trying to convey. Unfortunately, I tuned out chapters before.
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