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The Pumpkin Eater
By Penelope Mortimer
Reviewed by Oriana Leckert
If you read anything at all about this book, you will immediately learn the following salient points: Originally published in the early sixties (and reissued this year by the divine NYRB), it is a proto-feminist novel (predecessor to The Feminine Mystique), it's quite autobiographical, it's told by an unnamed narrator who is married to a philanderer (her fourth husband) and has an army of children (number never specified), and it opens in an analyst's office, where the narrator complains that she's afraid of dust. Most people, absurdly, stop there, giving a picture of a vapid housewife who is too dumb to stop reproducing, too dependent to leave her cheating husband, too hysterical to gain control of her life.
Of course, most people are idiots.
I, being (I think) rather less than an idiot, will start this review by talking about the quality of Penelope's writing. It is immediate, sharp, brutally candid. It is warm, genuine, and (often blackly) hilarious. Her descriptions of characters are quick and amazing--i.e., "He was a small, square man, with too much face for the size of his features," or "She was lonely and eccentric and kept making little rushes at life which were, as she swore she had always known, doomed to failure." Her language cracks and sparkles and seethes with rage, despair, hopelessness, urgency, and, eventually, against all odds, hope.
Now I will tell you something about the story itself. Mrs. Armitage, our faithful narrator, our damaged heroine, our harried, rueful housewife, is no ninny, no hysteric. Well--she does get hysterical, it's true, but goddammit, she has a right to. Her husband Jake is a talented, handsome, successful, childish, selfish bastard. Since they've become wealthy (she was rather poor with her first three husbands), she seems to have no say in her own life; she never sews a button or cooks a meal or wipes a nose, now that they have "help" to do all those things. About all she has time to do is discover more and more evidence of Jake's infidelities and talk to her pompous, condescending therapist about how to fix her "little weeps." Not that it's as bleak as all that; she manages to remain so self-possessed, so clever, so tough, that instead of pity you feel frustration for her, watching her try to make sense of her life. For long swaths you forget things are bad at all. Her narration is so full of life, so wry and self-mocking, that you just fly along.
On the face of it, this is a story of a somewhat co-dependent marriage gone pretty well wrong, but interestingly, nearly a third of the book--its middle--is dedicated to one summer when our narrator was about fourteen, just becoming a woman, as it were. We see her first boyfriend and her first manfriend, her bitchy mother and her questionable father, her tween frenemy Ireen, with her painted eyelashes and permanent wave. It's a fascinating episode, brilliantly illuminating the crazed, frustrated angst of being that age. "For the rest of the day I lay on my bed, or more accurately rolled and tossed and curled up like a spring on my bed. I howled and hiccupped, feeling as though there were a great gale in me which I could not contain."
That's, believe it or not, the fun part. This a rough story, all in all, full of imposed will and victimization and sexual misdeeds and cruelty. Yet it's an interpersonal melodrama, and the persons playing the roles are endlessly compelling. It's a book I couldn't help but hurtle myself through, with scenes that keep replaying in my head. In the end Mrs. Armitage does come into her own, though at a high cost. Watching her get there is riveting, seeing her grow teeth, as it were, and reclaim control of her life, is harrowing and hopeful both.
Out of 10: 9