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The Boston Phoenix Dry-Eyed

In her latest novel, Fay Weldon takes a satirical yet sympathetic look at the early days of the women's movement

By Kate Tuttle

OCTOBER 26, 1998: 

BIG GIRLS DON'T CRY, by Fay Weldon. Atlantic Monthly Press, 346 pages, $24.

Opening as it does with the "hollow, juicy sound" of two women plastering a wall with posters reading A WOMAN NEEDS A MAN LIKE A FISH NEEDS A BICYCLE (remember those?), Fay Weldon's new novel would seem to pose more subtly the question Time recently shouted from its cover. But in this case, the issue is not the death (real or imagined) of feminism; instead, Weldon is interested in the personal, sexual, and economic politics of the time in which it was born.

The story centers on Medusa, a feminist publishing house founded in London in 1971 by a group of women who include firebrand Layla, sexy but uptight Stephanie, gnomic guru Alice, and levelheaded Nancy. It is in the scene of Medusa's conception that Weldon really nails the 1970s -- that era of rampant idealism mixed with equally fervent self-centeredness. The women have gathered at the house Stephanie shares with her antiques-dealer husband, Hamish; as they talk, drink, and eventually disrobe and dance about, Hamish is in the kitchen feeling up the group's weak sister, Daffy. Here is one '70s paradox Weldon wants us to remember: if it was an age of ever-growing freedom and power for women, it was also the beginning of an epidemic of divorce and stress. As Stephanie, walking in on Hamish and Daffy, says: "This is last-straw time."

And yet the book never blames men -- or women -- for the trouble that sex gets them into. In Big Girls Don't Cry, Weldon writes as a seasoned campaigner, too experienced for romanticism yet too mature for bitterness. Above all, she suggests, people of both sexes are flawed as individuals, not as types: "It is hard for any of us to get beyond our sample of one." Which does not mean that Weldon eschews generalization. On the contrary, the book abounds with such wry -- yet sometimes heartbreaking -- examples as her musings on the poster's proposition:

Women in their twenties thought they could do without men altogether, if only it wasn't for sex. In their thirties they thought they could do without men if it wasn't that they needed fathers for their children. In their forties and thereafter they knew they could do without men perfectly well, if it wasn't for companionship and someone to go out with, and someone around so you didn't have to sleep forever in an empty bed. . . . And as so often what you said you didn't want was what you wanted most, and what you had didn't matter, and what you didn't have mattered most.

But for the most part, these women do elect to do without men, at least for the time being. Stephanie leaves her philandering mate; Nancy, having dumped her ludicrously strait-laced fiancé, moves in with Alice and her eccentric parents; and Medusa becomes a sensation, shaking up the literary scene with reprinted women's "classics" and new manifestos for the revolution that never quite comes. Meanwhile, Zoe -- a fringe member of the group who has elected to stay with her controlling, heavy-drinking husband (appropriately named Bull) -- labors in secret to finish a book that recalls The Feminine Mystique. But after she sends a chapter to Medusa, Bull burns the rest; his deed sets in motion a tragedy that flowers into malevolence in the person of Zoe's daughter, Saffron, who emerges as a postfeminist yuppie more concerned with hostile takeovers than with sisterhood.

Weldon fills out her story with strong -- and often hilarious -- supporting characters, including the surprisingly generous and resilient Daffy, the charming cad Hamish, and the leaden, haunted Bull. As they age, Weldon hints at their growth (Hamish, once the antiques-world version of Warren Beatty in Shampoo, matures into a cranky grandfather) but rarely encourages identification with their psyches. Hers is a light, dry touch; Weldon's characters reveal themselves in their choice of clothing, wine, and words, but we never overhear their thoughts.

None of which really matters, since the real fun here is in Weldon's detached, almost Martian perspective on familiar events. Big Girls Don't Cry is a cockeyed newsreel of the last quarter-century, reminding us that as the women's movement dawned, "the human right to veracity and authenticity in personal experience was not yet established. To be 'happy' was no one's quest, simply to get by was enough." Weldon is sometimes too arch, and her efforts to touch all the bases can feel forced (two gay characters, one of whom dies of AIDS, add next to nothing to the story). Mostly, though, her dispassionate tone provides a fertile environment for both sharp-edged social satire and wistful near-optimism.

Big Girls Don't Cry covers some familiar territory: love, sex, marriage, childhood, aging, betrayal, inequality, anger, disappointment, revenge. What's new is that a book so cold and clinical on its surface can reveal such unexpected generosity and compassion. Even more surprising, perhaps, is her verdict on the feminist experiment she critiques. ("The brighter the idea," Weldon quips in the Wildean tradition, "the worse the consequences.") In the end, she writes, Layla, Stephanie, Alice, and Nancy were "four women who changed the world, because it seemed simpler than changing themselves. Big women, not little women, that was the point, and still flourishing." Big women -- hear that, Ally McBeal?

Kate Tuttle is a freelance writer living in Cambridge.

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