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Calling Invisible Women

May 21, 2013

When my kids were so little we were going to the nearby public library that was in one big room, so they could pick out kid’s books and videos and I could look at books that might interest me within earshot, I found Jeanne Ray’s books and read both of the ones on the shelf: Eat Cake and Julie and Romeo. They were pleasant novels, and I didn’t think about them again until I read that Jeanne Ray had a new novel out, Calling Invisible Women, and decided to ask Random House for a copy.

I sat down with it one afternoon, thinking it would be an easy read, and it was, but it was more interesting and less compelling than I expected. It’s interesting because it doesn’t take the concept of invisibility and make it altogether metaphorical, and it’s less compelling than it could have been because of the suspension of disbelief necessary to get through the plot. I am capable of suspending disbelief to what strikes some of my friends as an astonishing degree, and yet reading this book made me go through some of my day testing out whether people were actually looking at me. (What I found was as mundane and homey as Ray’s books used to be—my son and husband didn’t notice what color I was wearing or when I had spinach in my teeth, but they did notice when I made a face, or that I had changed out of work clothes when I got home. To the people I met on my daily errands, I could have been just clothes walking around, but a couple that I usually stop and talk to would have noticed if there were no face attached.)

What happens to the protagonist of Ray’s novel, Clover, is that one day she gets out of the shower and when she looks in the mirror all she sees is her toothbrush “floating by itself several inches out from the cuff of my robe.” She runs into her sleeping son’s room, a son who has just graduated from Oberlin (where Walker is going next fall) and says “I need you to tell me if you can see me.” His response is “You don’t like your bathrobe anymore? You want to know if it’s becoming? I don’t know what you’re asking.”

It gets even funnier when she tells a friend, and the friend says “Are you kidding me? Except for a very few breakout moments, I’ve been invisible since the new millennium. The boys can be looking at naked women on Facebook and they don’t so much as twitch when I walk into the room. I can ask Steve what time he wants to eat dinner and he keeps on texting like I wasn’t even there. A woman wheels her cart right in front of mine and cuts into the checkout lane, a car cuts me off in traffic, I wave at the waiter and he’s looking at the wall behind my head. It’s just the plight of women after a certain age. No one can see you.” When Clover says that she’s talking about literal invisibility, the friend continues to talk about feeling invisible.

Finally Clover finds a support group for invisible women, who go naked but carry Kleenex so they can see each other. At that point the humor of the situation actually starts to diminish, because they figure out that a mix of three drugs–a hormone replacement, anti-depressant, and calcium supplement—is what’s causing the invisibility. What humor there is starts to get sad, about things that might not have changed for all women since the author’s generation: “They can see that the toilet paper roll needs changing and the wastebasket is full and that there is no more orange juice and we drink orange juice and orange juice is sold in grocery stores. They’ve trained themselves not to notice things because the less they notice the more we’ll just take care of it for them. They say, you should have told me you wanted my help when we had twelve people coming over for dinner! You should have told me not to sit in front of the computer looking at football scores while you’re running around doing everything by yourself. If you needed my help why didn’t you ask for it? I didn’t know you needed help.”

With the protagonist’s invisibility real and the lessons to be learned from it symbolic, like that it’s disingenuous to pretend that a person keeping a household going should have to ask for “help” or “how shameless people were in all they did not see,” the moral of the story gets bigger and more ridiculous, until the mother of a recent college graduate, a woman purportedly in her early fifties, is having a fit over her adult son getting a tattoo (a reaction I’d expect more from his grandmother than his mother), and the invisible women are out foiling bank robberies and school bullies. It’s fun, but keeps turning into a rollicking granny kind of fun.

The moral of the story seems to be that the drug companies should not be selling the drugs that make women invisible, and the women shouldn’t be taking them so unconcernedly. What the novel can’t seem to figure out is how essential these women are. Does the fate of the household actually rest on her shoulders–which makes the drugs an essential part of enduring an essential task–or are her efforts inconsequential, and so she’s simply a comic granny taking pills to make herself feel a little better in a world that’s passed her by? The mix of symbolism and realism makes it hard to see.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. PAJ permalink
    May 21, 2013 10:40 am

    This sounds like a fun read. The symbolism/realism problem probably wouldn’t bother me; I’d just identify with the invisibility parts. As a woman of a certain age, I find it liberating to be invisible. I can run to Target to pick up a prescription wearing sweat pants (not the trendier yoga pants!) and sneakers (white ones with no swoosh) and no makeup and not-freshly-styled hair because nobody’s looking at me anyway!

    A while back, my days were suddenly filled with happy people providing exceptionally good service. The young man at the local Mexican food restaurant gave me two times the amount of corn chips I normally receive. The teen worker at Panera cleared my used dishes with incredible speed and efficiency. The checkout boy at the grocery store actually engaged me in conversation and laughed at my jokes. Wow! Service wasn’t dead! Then I realized the common denominator was that my teen daughter was with me for all these events. Obviously, she’s not invisible!

    It’s not fair for us over-50 women to think we’ve cornered the market on invisibility. I live in a densely populated area and would be exhausted if I tried to really look at everyone who crosses my path. More often than not, they are mere obstacles blocking my route. But sometimes I force myself to see the people pushing those carts through the grocery store. I’ll smile at the young mother whose filling a cart while tending to her bored children. I retrieve the pickles from a higher shelf for a vertically challenged shopper. To an older couple, I offer “the cereals are now in aisle 12. It’s hard to find stuff since they remodeled this store!” For a moment, I see them and they see me.

    • May 22, 2013 9:25 am

      “A world filled with happy people providing exceptionally good service” is the world that many women live in for a while, and then miss when it’s gone. And yes, you’re absolutely right that we don’t look at many of the people who cross our path–this is one of the things Clover learns in the novel, and also a function of how automatic our actions get–because I retrieve things from the high shelves at our local Kroger so often, I don’t always really look at the person asking; it’s just part of the shopping experience, for me. When I was a young mother, I might have traded wry smiles with another, but now I mostly make faces at the babies to amuse them while the mother is loading her items onto the counter.

  2. May 21, 2013 10:42 am

    Well said, Jeanne. I had pretty much the same feelings about the book, except I actually really liked Ray’s previous books (sounds like more than you did.) I found the support group and the drug issue too silly to keep me interested. What I generally like about Ray is the cascading series of disasters that usually overtake her characters (I definitely relate to that!), but I get bored with magical elements in a book like this.

    • May 22, 2013 9:27 am

      I did like her previous books; especially when I had young children, I was all about a quick, absorbing read. I’d kind of forgotten about the cascading series of disasters in her earlier books–a good way to put it–but that is what I was missing about this one. The disasters didn’t cascade in a way that felt real or funny to me. They were disjointed.

  3. May 21, 2013 11:26 am

    This sounds a tiny bit like The Leftovers, not the point being made, but the way it’s being made. Using something huge and life-altering to comment on the way our society reacts to something. It sounds like an interesting one!

    • May 22, 2013 9:28 am

      You’re right; it is a little bit like The Leftovers, and I guess my reaction to the “real” event commenting metaphorically on the real world is the same. I don’t care for it much.

  4. May 21, 2013 3:59 pm

    I felt awkward writing my own review, so it’s nice to read yours and see similar thoughts. The premise was just so good and it’s one of those books (or at least what you thought it might be) that you want to like but just can’t. You’ve hit the nail on the head with the tattoo episode – it does sound more like the actions of a grandmother. If it had been about the word he’d wanted to choose, that would have been fine, because he was giving up too soon and making a silly decision on that one, but then he needed to be allowed to make his mistakes or at the very least be allowed to consider getting a tattoo. I wasn’t sure about the tattoo artist’s response either, it seemed odd.

    Very good point about the possible necessity of the drugs, I hadn’t thought of that, and it would’ve been an interesting discussion to have.

    • May 22, 2013 9:33 am

      Yes, the tattoo he wanted was silly, but if you start thinking about what word you’d want written on yourself until the end of your life, any word can start to seem silly. I did feel sorry for him, and that seemed to be more the point of the episode, if it had one–that she and her husband were seeing his plight kind of one-dimensionally, as parents sometimes do.

      I wanted to like the book more than I did, but that’s not to say I didn’t like it at all–I like comic granny hijinks; I just wanted more from this situation. It’s almost a compliment, I think, to say that this author might have done better with this idea.

  5. Gwen Bailey permalink
    May 21, 2013 6:37 pm

    One day when Maureen was still quite little, I went to pick her up at pre-school where a little boy asked me what my name was. I said, “Mom.” He said, “Okay.” And went back playing. Some time later during a play date, another person’s child ran into my kitchen, sobbing, and grabbed my leg, hanging on with her face pushed into my jeans. Her mom, standing right next to me, laughed and said “Wrong jeans, sweetie,” as she picked her daughter up. And somewhere in there I realized that, in spite of the fact that I was somewhat educated, my vocabulary consisted entirely of one syllable words.

    The point is that I felt more invisible then than I do now. Before my kids were able to drive, I felt like I had more in common with my car than my husband. Now we are facing nearly empty nest syndrome. I do not feel invisible; I feel possibility. Ray does, too.

    • May 22, 2013 9:39 am

      I think it’s possible that you embraced motherhood as a complete description of your life for a while, and that mothers of Ray’s generation expected their looks to carry them through their lives for a while.
      I’ve lived a part-time life for the past two decades; a couple of hours of “Professor Griggs” here, a couple of years of “Eleanor’s mom” and then “Walker’s mom” there, and a lot of “tall woman who can get me that can from the top shelf.”

  6. May 22, 2013 12:26 pm

    How funny that we should both have reviewed Jeanne Ray books! Well, great minds and all that… Yes, I would have been bothered by the realism/symbolism mix-up going on here. Older women do fall outside the cultural gaze in a literal way, but the cultural gaze is fundamentally figurative. We don’t look at what has no perceived value, utility or aesthetic. That’s something we really need to question, but to do so is difficult. And I suppose I have already read and loved Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years, which was also about female invisibility and treated it so wonderfully well it would be hard to beat.

    • May 22, 2013 1:27 pm

      Great minds know a Jeanne Ray book can be fun this time of year.
      We don’t look at what has no perceived value” when we’re in a hurry to do something else we value more, that’s for sure. I think one of the unasked questions of our time, in literature and possibly in life, is how much value do we assign to the contribution of someone who shops for and plans our meals and organizes having the place we live picked up and occasionally cleaned and makes our travel arrangements, picks up our cleaning, and knows who needs to be picked up and when.
      I don’t remember Ladder of Years particularly, and I know I read it when I was too young to care about the issues someone who is my age now faces, so I’ll have to put it on my list for re-reading.

    • May 23, 2013 12:36 pm

      litlove, what Jeanne Ray book did you review? Can you link me to your blog? I would like to read your review.

  7. May 23, 2013 9:51 am

    Hmmmm. I actually have Eat Cake around here somewhere and now I am excited to read it. #wanderingofftogofind
    PS – I lurve your posts and analysis. Thank you.

    • May 23, 2013 10:52 am

      Eat Cake is my favorite by her. I know lots of people prefer pie, but really, what can match the excitement of “I knew you were coming so I made a cake”?

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