Kate Walbert’s latest, A Short History of Women, may sound like a breezily reductive examination of the finer sex but, in fact, it’s a splendid, enrapturing novel with womanhood at its epicenter. The title is actually intended to undercut the condescension of “the woman question,” as it’s dismissively referred to at the turn of the 20th century.
Dorothy Trevor Townsend, an intelligent and revolutionary suffragette, is the entry point into this heritage story. A family tree diagram on page one acts as the literary map key, a useful reference tool for the reader, since the chapters shift frequently between different voices. The familial trickle down includes her daughter, Evelyn, an eventual science professor at Columbia University, and Evelyn’s niece, Dorothy, a mother of three, whose own daughters Caroline and Liz must deal with navigating motherhood and identity. As the narrative moves between generations, memories, thoughts, and conversations conflate and overlap. Initially a bit confusing to keep track of, the nuance with which the author has crafted each voice soon clarifies any muddle.
Walbert covers a wide scope — five generations — yet the minutiae of each life are carefully attended to. Her masterful zoom-in is never at the expense of the background. The First World War, Vietnam and gender inequalities are subjects that shape the experiences of the characters, but without eclipsing their rich inner lives. Lyrical, imagistic metaphors — “snow raw as beef,” “my [hair] coiled and hidden within [the hat] as a snake would be” — pepper the tale and give it added beauty. Though the reader comes to know the various characters, so much remains undisclosed, in what is a brilliant narrative decision that keeps one yearning for more information. The hide-and-seek glimpses allow the reader to be privy to fascinating details yet, as with real life, much remains elusive.
The women presented are smart: they’re thinkers, they pursue knowledge and rigorous education, they’ve struggled without complaining, they have strength without being untouchable. Across a variety of historical circumstances, their melancholy and their disappointments unfailingly pull at the reader’s heartstrings.