Once, during a training session I was leading, I asked people to introduce themselves and their favorite book. An older woman—a children’s librarian—responded with, “My favorite book is always the one that I’ve just finished reading.”

This is, of course, true for me as well.

Today, my new favorite book is Kate Walbert’s A Short History of Women.

I’ve never read Walbert before, though I meant to read Our Kind when it came out a few years ago and was shortlisted for the American Book Award.

A Short History of Women is comprised of a group of interconnected short stories, all about various generations of women from one particular family. The family is somewhat led (or, rather, overshadowed) by Dorothy Trevor Townsend, a suffragette who goes on a hunger strike at the beginning of World War I. She dies early on in the book (in the first chapter), and the rest of the stories pivot backward and forward in time around this event.

Dorothy’s death casts a strange feminist obligation on the women in her family, and it seems that every woman who follows Dorothy becomes obsessed with her death. This is especially true for Dorothy’s granddaughter and namesake, Dorothy Townsend Barrett, whom we meet for the first time as an elderly woman. This Dorothy somehow seems to extend the life of the original, and we have some clue as to what an old suffragette looks like, long after the fight has generally been won.

Of course, Walbert clearly does not think that the fight has been won: in fact, the three women more or less of our own generation might be the most pathetic of the bunch. The elderly Dorothy’s two daughters, Caroline and Liz, are sad individuals. Caroline is a high-earning divorcée who desperately misses her daughter Dora (a college student at Yale—have you noticed that all fictional characters go to Ivy League schools?—and another namesake of the original Dorothy): “With Dora at college, Caroline knew she had to be careful. The silence could sift down too easily, like molten ash, and solidify to rock with a hard rain: no phone calls, no emails, just for the unbearable weight of a daughter’s absence.” Caroline fills Dora’s absence with a lot of nothing; she googles her ex-husband, she becomes obsessed with her mother’s blog. (Walbert, while a talented writer, is clearly not a blogger: Dorothy’s blog, with just one entry, has collected a myriad of comments and followers.)

The chapter on Dora, probably the most cryptic of the bunch, is a one-page Facebook or Match-style entry, revealing what, exactly? She’s interested in both men and women (not so interesting these days), and counts among her list of favorite books “V.Woolf (even the last two indecipherable ones)”, “The Awakening”, and “the great E. Dickinson”—a typical set adored by the young feminist. And she only takes the sobriquet “Dora” after reading (a Wikipedia entry?) about Dora Maar, Picasso’s lover. At the end of the entry, in the “About Me” section, she writes, “My great-great-grandmother starved herself for suffrage. Color me Revolutionary.” Is this ironic or not? I can’t tell.

Caroline’s sister, Liz is the most inconsistent character. She is stuck in a life that seems to be careening along without her input—a life filled with Manhattan “playdates” for her children and a set of twins conceived in vitro, a clear symbol of her detachment from the joys of mother- and wifehood. And though she is married, her husband is certainly absent. What’s confusing about Liz, however, is her evolution from a sensitive child who reads constantly and occasionally slips notes to her mother in the middle of the night to Manhattan stroller Mafioso. What’s happened to that child who once described herself as a “hollow bone”?

The great strength of this collection—and the part that makes this book worth reading—is the story of Dorothy the suffragette and her daughter, Evelyn (Evie). These two timelines are the most interesting and moving of the bunch, and have an element that the later lives are missing: the importance of human connection in the lives of two pioneers in the history of female equality. Both women have real friends and lovers—characters that influence Dorothy and Evie as much as the historical moment. Their lives are beautifully written, and the sacrifices they make are evident of the subtle (and not so subtle) suppression of women everywhere.

At the end of the book I felt a little sad, but mostly lucky: my life is not a bit like Caroline or Liz’s, and I think I have women like Dorothy and Evie to thank.


Read more reviews: Book Slut, NY Times

Has anyone else read this book? What did you think?