Thursday, January 21, 2016

Finishing Susan's Book

Well, that was quick! I read Susan Branch's book Tuesday, finishing it at 10:00, just in time for bed.
And I enjoyed reading it. I like a writer's voice, and sometimes if I don't enjoy her subject matter, I'll read her anyway just to hear her talk.  I understand that some of you haven't considered this book appealing. I feel that way about a LOT of books :)
This is the first of two books that together are a prequel to her other book, A Fine Romance, which appeals to my friends: an account of Susan's ocean cruise in her 60s with the man she loves, followed by a leisurely tour of England. Who can resist that?

But the grueling tale of her youth, teen years, failed marriage, and abandonment of California? Ouch.

Here's the thing. Branch says right off the bat that this book isn't about her reader. It's about her. She begins: "Some censuring readers will scornfully say, 'Why hath this lady writ her own life?'" She answers with, "because I write it for my own sake, not theirs." (This is a quote from Margaret Cavendish, 1655. Branch's book is dripping with quotes from Charles Dickens to King Solomon and everybody in between.)

And I did start marking the book (a little). I noted every time she explained her philosophy of a fairy tale life -- how she got such a philosophy (from her parents), how she tried to implement that philosophy (with sheer grit and determination), and how it was disappointed (by her husband).

I find myself bemused by Susan Branch. She quotes the Bible and loves Beatrix Potter and Julia Child and Merry Olde England. She paints and snuggles kitty cats. She loves all the things we love, doesn't she? She reads all the things we read. And when she talks to us, she sounds just like a girlfriend! She even calls us girlfriends, and I believe she knows how to be a friend. I love her blog. But I do keep a distance; I study her. In spite of the sparkling wonder of her happiness, there are things that trouble me, and she doesn't address them.

Branch was born in 1947. Her mother was born about 20 years before, so about 1927. My mother was born in 1934. I was born in 1963, the year Branch graduated high school. '27, '34, '47, '63. Much of this book was about culture and how much it changed in the '60s -- the music, the pressure on women, their behavior and dress, and particularly the expectations put on young women and young men. This is about as close as she'll get to talking about the elephant in the room: In about 1960, she'd already moved out of her parents' house, gotten a small job, and was living with her boyfriend. She was living with her boyfriend! Branch readily admits that "The '60s" (the age of rebellion and sudden, inexplicable change) didn't start until 1964. In 1960, it was still "The '50s" (the age of penny loafers, braids, hop-scotch, and good girls). Only Branch wasn't a good girl. That's the truth that she never comes out and states. I don't know why.

Something must've changed drastically in her early teen years, in her world, in her culture. Or maybe 1960s California was radically different from 1970s Mississippi. I was a teen in the late '70s. I didn't know anybody who moved in with her boyfriend. Nada. No one. Branch invokes Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra as if they were her neighbors who behaviors she was naively following. How did her parents feel when she moved in with a boy younger than her? She doesn't say. Did they approve because he was incredibly financially successful for a 21-year-old, because financial success was the value they loved most? She doesn't exactly say. She avows that her parents' generation (children in the Depression, then fighters of WW2) valued financial security and fun. How could they condemn her behavior when she was only following what they'd instilled in her?

I found the book mildly disturbing. She cries as her world falls apart, her husband plays the field, she doesn't know what to do with herself. She has no college degree, no career. She knows how to keep house, cook, garden, paint a little. In that arena of her life, she'd followed her mother's generation: keep house, stay at home, be dependent on a husband. These values only work, however, when attention to marital rules are carefully followed. She played the good little wife. He wasn't the good little husband. Only ... a good little wife doesn't live with her boyfriend for six years before marrying him.

Susan Branch is satisfied with how her life turned out, and she still believes in fairy tales and dreams come true. I'm not here to condemn her. But I do find her life a study! She presents herself as a naive, flighty, innocent girl, dancing through life with good-luck fairy dust sprinkled on her head at just the right times. But under that ... I think there's a hard-working, gritty woman with lots of determination and rigorous habits who's decided she will make her dream world happen. And she does. Not the life I'd chose for myself, but then that's the point. It's her life. If you enjoy the study, it's worth reading.

3 comments:

  1. An excellent, insightful review. I'm still not going to read this book, especially now. The concept of Making a Dream World Happen (capital letters intentional!) is shared by other well-known women. Martha Stewart and Ree Drummond come to mind. Yes, what they show the public is extraordinary, but they are still real people who don't necessarily live ideal lives. None of us can do that down here.

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  2. It doesn't sound like something I'd like to read. After being a teen in the late 60's and early '70's, I don't really crave a return visit. And, yes, I believe '60's California probably was radically different than '70's Mississippi. I lived on the outskirts of Boulder, CO during the late '60's and all of the '70's. They were well ahead of my home state of Texas as far as debauchery was concerned. I guess being part of the "Bible belt" slowed down the advance of that sort of thing. Thanks for your thoughts on the book. Very interesting!

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  3. I enjoyed her book on England more and from my perspective, she lived a charmed life. Yes, some angst and tears but, overall, her life has been wonderful and she's a blessed woman. A while back, I did a web search on her, her husband...interesting reading. They both have grit and determination, necessary ingredients, imo, for a life well lived. They've done well; I'm looking forward to her "island" book and then, the book on her 2016 to be Scotland journey.

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