Monday, October 9, 2017

Book Review: How Hard Can It Be?

By Jami Deise

One of the many benefits of being a book reviewer is the opportunity to read books before they’re published. Usually a month or two before a book is released, the publisher will make it available to reviewers so they have enough time to read and write about it so the review is published around the same time the book is released. Never before, however, have I felt guilty about reading a book so far in advance of its release to U.S. readers.

Friends, Allison Pearson has written a sequel to her international blockbuster I Don’t Know How She Does It. The bad news is, it’s not available in the U.S until June 2018! The good news is, if you’re really desperate to read it, there seem to be third-party sellers on Amazon that can get it to you faster.

Didn’t publishers learn anything from Harry Potter?

Luckily for me, Melissa knows I Don’t Know How She Does It is one of my all-time favorite books, and she made sure I was one of the early reviewers to the sequel. Is it good enough to pay extra for a copy now rather than wait for its U.S. publication this summer? Maybe…

When we first met Kate Reddy in 2002, she was in her kitchen at two o’clock in the morning, trying to make store-bought pies look homemade for her daughter’s school’s bake sale. An enormously successful hedge-fund manager, Kate’s career was so all-encompassing that she barely had time for her small children, Emily and Ben, or her often-clueless, often-helpless husband Richard. In creating a new fund, Kate is thrown together with American Jack Abelhammer, and develops an enormous crush on him. But rather than throwing over hapless husband Richard—who can’t pull his own weight either at home or at the office—Kate quits her job and moves her family to the country so that Richard can bask in the glory of being the main family breadwinner.

Suffice it to say, as much as I loved this book, I hated the ending. The Sarah Jessica Parker theatrical version improved on it, but the sequel is based on the book, not the movie.

So what’s Kate been up to all these years?

Pearson may have been working on this sequel for a while, because in Kate’s world, it’s about 2012. Ben and Emily are teenagers, and Kate hasn’t been working. She’s still fixing up the fixer-upper she and Richard bought at the end of the first book.

In How Hard Can It Be?, Pearson continues her talent at capturing the zeitgeist, especially where teenagers are concerned. Emily, caught in a Mean Girls-like friendship, is obsessed with social media. Ben is obsessed with video games. Neither of them would be caught dead without their smart phone. (The U.S. obsession with extra-curricular activities doesn’t appear to have caught on in Kate’s British hamlet, however.)

Now 49, Kate is forced to find fulltime work because Richard, even more of a dunderhead than he was in Know, has lost his architect job and is pursuing a therapy degree. Not only does the degree cost a lot of money, but Richard must pay for his own therapy as part of training. In his spare time, he’s developed a very expensive cycling hobby.

When Kate meets with a career counselor, she’s told that at her age, she’s virtually unemployable. Already suffering the indignities of peri-menopause, Kate takes a page from Sutton Foster’s book and lies about her age. Wisely, she only shaves off seven years, but it also requires her to lie about Ben and Emily’s ages, too.

The new age helps—Kate finds a temporary job, filling in for a woman on maternity leave, at her old hedge fund. Instead of running the fund, though, she’s given marketing duties, and there’s no one left at the firm who was there in her heyday. Soon Kate is back on the same merry-go-round; Richard refuses to lift a finger around the house, while Kate has added a long commute on top of her work duties and teenager-managing.

Kate’s not the same person she was in 2002. Her years of being out of the workplace, not to mention the memory problems that peri-menopause bring, have sapped her confidence and some of her abilities. At times, she comes across as a pushover. Still feeling guilty for having worked so many hours when Emily was young, she gives the girl whatever she asks. She takes care of Richard’s dementia-ridden mother because Richard can’t handle medical situations. And she never confronts Richard about his spending or commitments.

I read a lot of women’s fiction, humorous and dramatic, and many female protagonists fall into this pushover trap. It’s frustrating, because I want my fictional heroines to be more like role models. Kate Reddy was the original protagonist who couldn’t have it all, who quit her job to stay home, but there were many others who followed that same path. (See, A Window Opens… until it closes, however.) Yet it’s a sadly realistic one. Women are expected to put their children’s needs first, and those needs have grown geometrically in the last few decades. At the same time, so have career demands. And in relationships, we’re expected to be the “cool girlfriend,” who doesn’t nag a husband or boyfriend who has an important hobby, or regular guys’ nights, or a career that requires out-of-town projects for ten years straight. Fictional women are either Kate Reddy, or they are Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne. Either they put everyone else first, or they are bat-shit crazy.

There’s an interesting subplot in which Kate acts as a mentor to the younger Alice, advising the young woman to dump her commitment-phobic boyfriend in order to find someone willing to marry and impregnate her. With all Kate’s problems in juggling career and family, I didn’t know why she was so determined to push her lifestyle on someone else.

However, I was much more pleased with Hard’s ending than I was with Know’s. Perhaps a woman needs to be pushing fifty in order to finally realize that if she doesn’t put herself first, everyone else will put her last. As a woman who just turned 50, it’s a lesson I’m trying to learn myself.

Thanks to HarperCollins UK for the book in exchange for an honest review.


Laurie I said...

Loved your review!!

Jackie Bouchard said...

I read a good review of this on a blog the other day - it was a UK blog. Didn't realize the book's not out here until June! Ugh. That's a long wait! Hooray for a better ending.

You've reminded me I never saw the movie of IDKHSDI. Will have to look for that. (I love it on the very rare occasions when a movie improves on a book. The only others I can think of are "The Firm," "The Princess Bride," and "Everything is Illuminated."