Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough by Ruth Pennebaker — 320 pgs


Book Cover Joanie Pilcher is about to turn fifty and has recently been left by her husband. If that’s not enough to make her feel overwhelmed, her eighty year old mother is also living with her and her sullen teenage daughter. When Joanie gets a call from her ex-husband letting her know he’s gotten his new twenty-nine year old girlfriend pregnant, Joanie begins to fall off the precipice of good mental health. Trapped in an ad-exec job she hates and a divorce support group that can sometimes be judgemental, Joanie is slowly losing it. Ivy, Joanie’s mother, is also deteriorating. Though she used to live on her own, the financial crash has eaten up her savings, forcing her into her daughter’s home, where she doesn’t feel welcomed or appreciated. Meanwhile, the teenage Caroline fears she has some sort of multiple personality disorder because she can’t understand why she’s so angry with everyone in her life except the handsome and oblivious Henry. As the three women orbit each other, they come to realize that life isn’t filled with the happiness they once expected to find, and must learn to navigate not only the waters of their tenuous relationships, but the wider waters of a life that fluctuates wildly from day to day. Infused with an offbeat and potent humor, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough is the story of three women of three very different generations coming to terms with each other and with the wider world around them

One of the things I liked best about this story was the way Pennebaker was able to write from each woman’s perspective so convincingly. Joanie, a baby boomer, is frustrated with her life and struggles with it due to her bitter attitude. She struggles because she believes that life should and could be so much more. She expects it and demands it, and because of all the overwhelming things that are happening in her professional and personal life, she feels as though she’s slowly sinking into a place where she might not be able to cope with it anymore. Her relationship with Ivy, her mother, is filled with anger. Part of that anger stems from knowing that she was not the favorite child, and part because, even though she has bailed her mother out, Ivy still finds many things to criticize Joanie about. It’s an issue a lot of women face. Becoming the mother to your mother can be not only confusing, but also has an odd way of building up resentment and anger. Ivy does a lot to add fuel to Joanie’s fire because of her puritanical belief system and her constant and unhelpful interjections. On the opposite side, her relationship with her daughter is difficult because she really does struggle to be a good and compassionate mother but can’t help but to put all kinds of emotional pressure on her. She doesn’t understand why her daughter is so angry and resentful when, try as she might, she just wants to connect. It was easy to see that Joanie’s relationship with her daughter was the mirror reflection of the relationship she had with her mother, with Caroline treating her much the same as she treated her mother.

To be honest, though I did like her, I found Ivy to be a little too meddlesome and inflexible. She is of the generation that believes the women of her daughter and granddaughter’s generation expect too much for themselves and that’s why they’re never satisfied. They eagerly seek happiness only to end up disappointed. She speaks at length about her own relationship with her deceased husband and how there was little to no communication or emotional connection. Ivy doesn’t understand why her daughter is so angry and depressed, or why her granddaughter is so full of angst. She is so far removed from any forms of society that she’s sometimes misled in her beliefs by the things she reads on the Internet and the age old opinions that she stubbornly holds on to. In the latter half of the story, Ivy comes to realize that she too may be depressed and she begins to act out in some alarming ways. Her relationship with her son, the favorite, is a source of painful disappointment to her, and she, at times, mercilessly antagonizes both her daughter and granddaughter. While I could readily sympathize with Ivy, she sometimes maddened me with her strange ideas and proclamations and endless insensitive questions.

Caroline was the person I most identified with, which is strange for me because usually I don’t sync all that well with YA characters. Caroline is frustrated by the role she’s forced to play in her parents’ drama. She’s constantly filled with anger because she feels that the adults around her are trying to validate their feelings through her and that everyone expects something from her. She’s in love with a boy who is only using her for her intellectual prowess and who doesn’t know how she feels about him. Caroline also is basically friendless and sort of a social outcast. She comes into skirmishes with almost everyone around her, a fact which saddens and confuses her. She doesn’t think she’s a mean person, so why is she acting this way all the time? Looking deeper into the book, I think I identified with Caroline because I’ve been Caroline. There’s a tremendous pressure and weight on her, and her need for understanding herself and her parents is something she’s not equipped for. Her confusion and anger were so real for me, her unhappiness so palpable. Out of the three women, she’s the one who seemed the most confused and troubled, and because she was so young, she had no wellspring from which to draw comfort.

Though I’ve made this book sound rather dour and serious, there were a lot of laugh out loud moments and a sharp humor to the ways in which the women dealt with each other. I found the book to be surprisingly amusing and realistic in a way I hadn’t expected, and although the ending was a bit ambiguous, I could see that each woman was on the road to healing by the conclusion of the book. The issues that manifest themselves were not light and frothy, but something about the way they were portrayed enabled me to see them for who they were, and also let me get a glimpse of the redemption that they were on the road to finding. This is the type of book I think a lot of women will relate to for a host of reasons. I think each reader will have a very different reaction to the three women and will find something about each of them to admire, despite their emotional upheavals. A very worthy read.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

24 comments:

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I was curious about this book from the get-go, and now I am pretty sure it would be a fun beach read for me. Love the detail in your reviews.

Sandy Nawrot said...

A little humor about women's issues would be a pleasure right now I think. You have to laugh to keep from crying! Excellent review of this book, as always.

nomadreader said...

I'm really drawn to novels with multiple narrators. I find myself more compelled to read in longer spells to see what's going in next with each character.

Swapna said...

This does sound interesting! I loved reading your review, I may have to pick up this book at some point.

TheBookGirl said...

I like the idea of looking at issues from the perspective of the three generations -- and I found particularly perceptive your observations about the anger and resentment that can be churned up when the daughter becomes the mother to her mother...
Seems as though there would be something for adult women readers of all ages in this one.
Thanks for the great review.

Amy said...

Great review, sounds like a book with a lot of different things to it. Thanks!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Gosh I practically had a nervous breakdown just reading the first paragraph! I think this book would be too much of a downer for me, but you wrote a wonderful review!

Audra said...

I'm glad you mentioned the book had some humor to it because I was definitely getting a bit stomach ache-y at the first paragraph -- it sounded a bit like an emotional nightmare!

Darlene said...

I kind of skimmed your review as I hope to get to this one soon. I did see you say it's a worthy read so that's good enough for me.

Hope You have a great day Heather!

Steph said...

Wonderful review! I always love books that take a no-holds barred approach to the internal lives of women as well as the genuine struggles we face (even if it doesn't always paint a pretty picture). I also think it's great when authors are able to inject some humor into books like this since even in our darkest moments there is generally something worth laughing about.

bermudaonion said...

Isn't it funny how the generations before us just kind of accepted their lot in life? I'm glad that times have changed. This sounds like a good book to me.

Suko said...

Wonderful, detailed review. It sounds like a book about relationships--I'd be able to relate to as well.

Amy said...

I've seen this book on a few different blogs and I've been meaning to discover what it's about, so I was happy to see you reviewed esp. because I knew I'd get a great over-view of the book. Thank goodness it's written with humor because I think otherwise there'd be too much darkness & angst. The characters sound very realistic. Ivy already irritates me a bit (hee, hee) and I just want to hug poor Caroline. I like to read books like this, real characters slugging through real life trying to make sense of it all and find, at least some happiness.
Thank you for a terrific review! This book is going on my tbr list :o).

ruth pennebaker said...

thanks so much for taking the time to review my novel. so glad you liked it.

Geosi Reads said...

An indepth review. Thanks for this.

Trisha said...

Generational perspectives like this fascinate me. Great suggestion!

Jenny said...

This sounds like a really great character study of different generations of women. Glad you liked it! I think I would probably like this one too.

Darlyn (Your Move, Dickens) said...

Your review really made me want to read this book. I'm particularly interested in Caroline's story, and I want to see how the author depicts three generations of women. It sounds very challenging. :)

Jenners said...

Oh this sounds pretty good! I'm glad to hear it had some humor in it....otherwise it might feel a bit too down.

Coffee and a Book Chick said...

I have this book and cannot wait to read it! I love a story with multiple characters.

Bookfool said...

Oh, thanks for the review! I've just signed up for your drawing. This sounds more interesting than I expected.

Lisa said...

I've completely ignored this book in other reviews because of the name. There's movie by the same name and I really couldn't get past that. But after reading your review, I'm convinced this would make a great book club read.

Marie said...

That sounds like a really fun book! :-) Great review!

Pam (@iwriteinbooks) said...

Ah, what a great review, as always. :O) I'm so glad that you enjoyed the book. I thought it would be much lighter, more "chick-lit" like. I was surprised at how snarky it was. Good stuff!

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