Wednesday, March 23, 2011
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.