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'A Certain Age' ()

Downsized Literary Ladies: All Pluck, But No Luck

by Rebecca Flowers
Apr 7, 2009 (All Things Considered)

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'I Capture The Castle' 'Gemma Bovery' downsized heroines primary Rebecca Flowers

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As a child, I devoured books about poor girls. The best saw large fortunes vanish and were maybe even orphaned.

Then, as an adult, I learned about being downsized myself firsthand — twice in three months. Instead of making a ball gown out of the drapes (as Scarlett O'Hara did), I crawled into bed to console myself with books about other women in similar situations.

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'A Certain Age'

A Certain Age, by Tama Janowitz, paperback, 336 pages

"Poetic" isn't exactly the word I'd use to describe A Certain Age by Tama Janowitz. Here, there is no genteel poverty and no redemptive ending. Instead, what you get is a cautionary tale of what can happen when unalloyed social ambition meets poor financial management — and ruthless, sexy men in heartless New York society.

Thirty-one-year old aspiring socialite Florence Collins dreams of the lavish, posh life of the uber rich — and believes that marriage is her only avenue for getting there. But when all her poorly conceived scheming for a rich husband falls apart, she is left homeless, friendless and destitute, and quickly develops a taste for crack cocaine. It's not great literature, but it's definitely an addictive, sordid read. And if you're feeling vexed at the truly rich, it's the perfect indulgence.

Love them or loathe them, these impoverished heroines prove that when prospects for love, happiness and a sizable return on their 401(k)s diminish, the toughest literary ladies do whatever it takes to find their own personal bailouts.

"Three Books ..." is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Bridget Bentz.

'I Capture The Castle'

I Capture The Castle, by Dodie Smith, paperback, 352 pages

First up: Dodie Smith's 1940s novel, I Capture The Castle. It's about two sisters, Rose and Cassandra Mortmain, who live with their eccentric family in a run-down castle in the English countryside. Their father published a critically acclaimed book once upon a time but hasn't been able to write in years. The family becomes destitute.

But as fate would have it, two handsome and wealthy American brothers inherit the manor next door. Rose is determined to leave poverty behind, even if it means marrying someone she doesn't love, while Cassandra, more the wandering-in-the-moors type, wonders if the allure of money won't soon wear thin.

The ending is a surprise but manages to embrace such solidly middle-class virtues as having only as much as you need, being true to your heart and locking your father in a dungeon until he writes 50 pages of passable prose so the family can eat again.

'Gemma Bovery'

Gemma Bovery, by Posy Simmonds, hardcover, 112 pages

When it comes to reinforcing middle-class mores, Gemma Bovery, the title heroine of Posy Simmonds' graphic novel of Flaubert's classic Madame Bovary, may seem familiar. Passionate and ill-fated, Gemma suffers from an ennui particular to modern-day middle-class society. When Gemma and her husband, Charlie, leave London to seek a simpler life in Normandy, our heroine embarks on an illicit affair with a young student. Charlie, who has amassed extensive tax debt back in England, discovers the affair and bails.

Alone and penniless, Gemma does what any modern woman would do — cuts her hair and prepares to do work that will eventually get her out of debt. That she dies at the end of the book — I'm not spoiling anything; you find this out on page one — has more to do with poetic justice than penury.

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