Wednesday, January 14, 2009

"Lady of the Snakes"--a novel of the modern American woman

Rachel Pastan's 2008 novel "Lady of the Snakes" has its heroine Jane Levitsky, a contemporary American woman who is trying to start a career as a literary researcher and university professor, raise a young child, and having a loving marriage. In the novel trying to be a professor, mother and wife at the same time is difficult, very difficult.

The heroine finds herself pulled apart from the multiple stresses of being mother, wife, and professor. Levitsky founds herself pregnant in graduate school on the East Coast but her woman thesis adviser is not sympathetic to her pregnancy. After the baby is born the heroine struggles with working at her dissertation while always lacking sleep. Her family is far away in California so they can't help her take care of the baby. The problems worsen at her first job teaching at the University of Wisconsin.

Pastan brilliantly describes the multiple stresses on young mother-new college instructor. She can't afford any household held but a babysitter. One babysitter quits without any notice. It's hard to find a daycare center the heroine likes. Her department is unsympathetic to her childcare crises, and one professor tells her its "unprofessional" to talk it. Taking caring of her child, her husband, and her new teaching job leaves the heroine no time to do research for the book she needs to keep her job. She constantly has to put aside her research to take care of child, her husband, and her students. Her marriage starts to fall apart.

The novel is also brings alive the heroine's fascination with her research about 19th century Russian novelist Grigory Kharvov and his wife Masha. The heroine wants to write a new view of the ignored wife Masha, wants time to delve into Masha's dairies, wants to see if Masha had literary talent. The novelist interwines the stories of two couples: the 19th century Russian novelist and wife Masha with the 21st century American academic Jane and her husband. The young professor Jane Levitsky clashes with the male dominant professor Sigleman who thinks only the male Russian novelist is important not his wife. The novel brings alive the clash of ideas in literary research and even the ruthlessness in making careers and putting down your rivals. Can the heroine stand up to ruthless people like the male professor Sigleman to question theories and ideas she disagrees with?

"Lady of the Snakes" is a good novel that compares with A.S. Byatt's novel "Possession," a brilliant work about two late 20th century English academics--a man and a woman--researching a famous male poet and woman poet in 19th century England. In both "Lady of the Snakes" and "Posession" the modern heroine is searching for literary foremothers to give her courage.

Byatt magically brings alive both the 19th century and the 20th century couples. Unfortunately, Pastan only brings alive the 21st century wife and husband but the 19th century Russian couple don't come alive but seem like stereotyped egocentric male novelist and submissive devoted suffering wife. Only in the end does the 19th century wife and husband come alive as the stories of both couples become resolved. "Lady of the Snakes' might have some flaws but it's still excellent in its portrayal of the problems and struggles of a contemporary American woman.

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