Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Book Review: The Real Liddy James

By Jami Deise

In 2012, former Hillary Clinton aide Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote an article for Atlantic magazine entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” which landed like a meteor on a dinosaur-dominated Earth. While Slaughter’s observations were spot-on, her personal story read more like #1stWorldProblems than a scenario most women could emphasize with. To wit, Slaughter, a tenured professor at Princeton, left her university to take a position in Clinton’s State Department – a senior position requiring long hours, occasional TV appearances, and a weekly commute to DC. Leaving her two sons in the very capable hands of her professor husband – who had long ago agreed to become “lead parent” – it looked like Slaughter did indeed have it all, and at a very high level, too. But her older son turned into a juvenile delinquent, forcing Slaughter to quit her job so she could be constantly on hand to keep her son’s self-destructive behavior in check. It’s hard to see Slaughter’s experience as a universal look at what’s keeping women from the upper echelons , and more of a very personal tale of how one woman’s fabulous career was derailed by a self-centered, bratty teenager. (I’m sure Slaughter and her husband don’t look at it that way. She has always been very generous toward the boy – more than I might have, in a similar situation.) To her credit, Slaughter didn’t let this experience keep her home licking her wounds. She’s been an outspoken expert on the subject of caregiving, publishing a book last year, and is rumored to be up for another high-level position in a potential Hillary Clinton Administration. The troubled son is now in college. (Her tale is a lot more well-known than that of a similar woman, former George W. Bush spokesperson Karen Hughes, who quit her job and moved back to Texas because her teenage son didn’t like DC. Maybe Hughes should have written an article, too.)

Another Anne-Marie, Anne-Marie Casey, found Slaughter’s tale so compelling, it inspired her to write a book about a similar woman, fictional New York City divorce attorney Liddy James. James is a very specific character – well-known (and well-paid) in her field, she’s written a book and often appears on TV to talk about celebrity divorces and parenting after a break-up. She has two sons – teenage Matty, fathered by her ex-husband Peter, and six-year-old Cal, the result of a one-night-stand that broke up her marriage. Peter is now in a common-law marriage with Rose, who is more of a parent to Matty than Liddy is. With apartment fees, private school tuition, the nanny, the dog-walker, and a hefty settlement to Peter (a professor who couldn’t afford to live in New York without his ex-wife’s alimony), Liddy can’t get off her gerbil wheel of work without having to sacrifice everything. And no one in her life is grateful for everything she does – rather, she’d judged for never slowing down.

Reading about Liddy’s life is exhausting, and Casey makes an interesting choice by including Rose as a point-of-view character. A professor as well, Rose has put her position in jeopardy by taking care of Matty rather than following the “publish or perish” edict. She loves Matty as if he were her own, and routinely puts his and Peter’s needs first. When Rose has an unexpected, later-in-life pregnancy, Liddy points out that as Peter’s unmarried partner, Rose has no rights to his house or his son. In fact, Rose’s own health insurance is paid by Liddy’s company! Then Rose develops complications and is put on bedrest. This requires Matty to move back in with Liddy, and he immediately starts to make her life a living hell the way teenage boys seem to be best at.

While the book is pitched as another I Don’t Know How She Does It, its most touching and unique aspect is the relationship between Liddy and Rose. Far from being a typical war between the ex-wife and the new partner, Liddy and Rose both realize they are dependent on each other for their completely different lifestyles, and appreciate rather than resent each other. The resentment seems to be reserved for Peter and Matty, who both sulk through most of the book.

Structurally, I found a few issues. There were a few cases of “head-hopping” (when a character who shouldn’t be suddenly becomes a point-of-view character); more broadly, the pacing of the final quarter of the novel was off. Because of this, the last quarter seemed to belong to a completely different novel entirely, and poor Rose was almost forgotten.

Overall, though, I enjoyed The Real Liddy James and think it’s a nice addition to the “working mother tries to have it all but falls on her face” genre. Although the fact that there is such a genre is sad. Women write these books; women read these books; they are fiction but still adhere to the trope of “women can’t have it all.” And it’s not because we’re bad at our jobs; it’s because there’s someone at home that trips everything up. I’d love to read a book where a woman triumphs at home and in the office. So far, though, that seems as big a fantasy as “Cinderella.”

Thanks to Putnam for the book in exchange for an honest review.