BIG GIRLS DON'T CRY
By Fay Weldon
Atlantic Monthly Press
346 pp., $24
When British writer Fay Weldon launches a satiric attack, she takes no prisoners. At the end of her novels, there are no survivors. Except wit.
Her latest, "Big Girls Don't Cry," an acerbic sendup of the feminist movement, is no exception. Bra-burning veterans are bound to feel unfairly extinguished, but take heart, she leads the chauvinist pigs to the slaughterhouse, too.
The story opens in 1971 at a consciousness-raising meeting for women in a London suburb. Two usual members couldn't make it: One "had to cook tea for her children," the other "doesn't want to upset her father."
Sitting on the living-room floor, they listen to feminist cant from their leader with a mixture of exhilaration, boredom, and incomprehension. They bicker over who should make the snacks. One member wanders upstairs and begins an affair with her host's husband.
They don't seem likely leaders of the feminist revolution. But Weldon wants us to remember that big beginnings are never as tidy as we want to imagine. That evening, in the chaos of squabbles, infidelity, and nude dancing, this little irreconcilable group decides to found Medusa, a publishing house "to specialise in women's classics to record the ideas that shake the world."
It's an audacious goal, severely challenged by conflicting personalities: Alice, their intellectual mother, drifts into lunar worship and tarot-card reading; Layla wants to turn a profit even if it means funding their radical feminist press with money from her male lover; Stephanie accepts whiny manuscripts that no one wants to read. But along the way, with a mixture of battiness, idealism, and pragmatism, they succeed in building an immensely successful publishing house and ushering in a revolutionary social movement.
Unfortunately, though "the Harpies of Medusa" began by proclaiming their dedication to consensus rule, success doesn't keep them from treating each other savagely. At times, it seems as though Hamish, one of the loutish husbands on the outside of this group, was right when he said, "All women are traitors. That's why feminism will never work."
The young women working for "the bra-less harridans of the publishing world" enjoy none of the humane benefits the matriarch was supposed to provide. Their corporate structure is as hierarchical as any male model they've rejected. Their personal lives remain as disheveled and unsatisfying as ever. Love, lust, and maternity won't cooperate with their politically correct orthodoxy.
Just when Weldon's wit starts to sound like fingernails on a blackboard, she relents and reminds us that even in comedy, she's dead serious. At times, the satire falls away entirely, and we're left only with the bleak reality of a suffocating marriage or an abandoned child. "Revolution," she reminds us, "costs the lives of a generation."
In the second half, Weldon widens her attention to include the social and economic forces that inspired this revolution. There were many foes worth fighting - both public and private. Against the generals pursuing a policy of "mutually assured destruction" by placing short-range nuclear weapons among the tightly-packed nations of Europe, the hysterical women of Medusa don't seem to have a monopoly on irrational behavior.
It's tempting to find the zany conclusion unsatisfying because it leaves no answers, but that's the privilege of smart satire. Weldon knows we haven't reached many conclusions about the movement that shook Western culture.
* Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org