Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles

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Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Ruth Ng
Reviewed by Ruth Ng
Summary: One of the strangest stories I've ever read, quirky and bizarrely alluring and very, very odd.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 256 Date: June 2010
Publisher: Sort of Books
ISBN: 978-0956003850

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First published in 1943, this is the story of Christina Goering and Frieda Copperfield who are two strained and constrained women who want to break free, although it is not entirely clear what it is they want to break free from. Society? The conventions of heterosexuality? The boredom of their female lives? Anyway, Christina is a wealthy spinster who takes a companion, Miss Gamelon, into her home where they settle into a routine of being catty to each other. Soon Christina's male friend, Arnold, moves in with them too, and later when they all move to a falling-down house on an island they are joined there by Arnold's father who has walked out on his wife. Christina leaves the house, trying to improve herself in some manner perhaps, but becoming a sort of prostitute, falling into relationships as a 'kept woman'. Mrs Copperfield, meanwhile, takes a trip to Panama with her husband. The couple drift apart as Frieda finds herself attracted to the seedy underworld of prostitution, drinking in bars and brothels, falling for a prostitute named Pacifica and leaving her husband to move in with her.

The whole story is told in quite a blank, straightforward style. In the short memoir about Jane Bowles at the end of the book by Truman Capote he says Jane Bowles is an authoritative linguist; she speaks, with the greatest precision, French and Spanish and Arabic - perhaps this is why the dialogue of her stories sounds, or sounds to me, as though it has been translated into English from some delightful combination of other tongues. I thought this very apt, as the dialogue sounds very clipped and precise somehow. Not at all natural, although that merely adds to the rather surreal feeling and also the sense of constraint throughout.

I think the strangeness is partly because throughout the book there aren't really any insights into the characters, into why they're doing what they're doing or what it means. So they seem to lurch from one bizarre decision to another and you are left wondering to yourself about their motivations or reasoning. They seem to act upon impulses, though contradict themselves from one moment to the next. They don't appear to be happy before or after their actions, nor liberated (in my opinion) by their breaks from society's norms. Neither lady is particularly likeable and as I read I mostly found myself muttering 'what on earth..?' to myself.

Yet there is still something about the book, how thoroughly odd it is, that is rather interesting and kept me reading to the end. I was also almost tempted to go back and start over again, in case I had somehow missed the point entirely. I think it's a marmite sort of book, and that those who read it either love it or hate it. I'm afraid I didn't really like it, but there are obviously others who think it's simply wonderful and thoroughly enjoy it. For my own part it reminded me too much of a course I took on Modernist fiction many years ago where I found myself, for the most part, unmoved and untouched by the literature we read. I was always afraid, at the time, that I was being terribly stupid and missing the point somehow. Now I'm happier to admit that I just would rather curl up with a book with a good story, rather than one that, although it is clever and interesting for its strangeness and stylistic prose, just left me feeling puzzled and cold. If you're interested in literary fiction, however, then this is something you should definitely pick up and try.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals then you might like to try The Gathering by Anne Enright.

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Buy Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles at Amazon.com.

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