I read Francine Prose’s nonfiction Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them in college and loved it, so when I saw this in a used bookstore, I decided to buy it and see what her fiction writing was like. And, okay, the writing is pretty good. It’s the central idea behind the book that I had some major problems with.
Our heroine is Martha, a lost woman reeling from a breakup and needing to find a place where she is accepted. Walking on a beach one day, she encounters a group of New-Age goddess-worshipping women, and saves their accident-prone leader (her name is Isis Moongarden, if that gives you any indication of where we’re going with this) from drowning. Next thing we know, Martha has become a member of the group and is preparing to go on a vision quest with them.
This is very much a satirical book, and most of the satire was admittedly funny and pretty on-point – the best part was how well Prose rips apart the concept of white women paying a Native American to take them on a fake vision quest, and I almost wish that the majority of the plot was spent at the retreat. Where we venture into awkward territory, however, is when it comes to the other targets of Prose’s satire.
Look, hippy-dippy New Agers are a great target for satire. But Prose’s main source of humor seems to stem from the fact that a group of women tried to create a peaceful and supportive environment that fell apart because they couldn’t stop being catty bitches to each other for longer than five minutes. There’s petty relationship drama, middle-school-level jealousies, and also there’s a mother-daughter pair in the group that’s just a minefield of tired jokes you hear from middle-aged male comedians at an open mic night. The mother is flighty and encourages her daughter’s eating disorder, because LADIES BE DIETING, AM I RIGHT GUYS. The problem here is that the women themselves are often the target of Prose’s humor, and the level to which she constantly runs them over in the service of her own cruel satire is disheartening. At least two of the women in the group have experienced sexual abuse, and several of them are gay. The fact that the cult is probably the only safe environment available to them is not acknowledged or discussed.
And you can’t tell me that this is all subtle brilliant satire and Prose is really supporting feminism instead of mocking it, because the book ends with two of the characters literally being rescued by a man. A man who mentions at one point that he hated Thelma and Louise, prompting one of the women to say that she didn’t like it either. The whole scene just reeked of “See, I’m not like other girls, I’m a cool girl! Bitches and their drama, hahaha!” and it was (sing along if you know the words) PROBLEMATIC.
Verdict: one out of five stars