Now, ordinarily I love a good relationship saga. Give it a college setting and a hefty dollop of ‘should I or shouldn’t I shag him?’ as the central conflict, and we’re away. But where Braided Lives comes unstuck is in its attempt to be something greater.
Piercy uses her protagonists’ lives as a vehicle for feminist thought, primarily to showcase the trail of destruction which anti-abortion laws left in their wake in 1950s America. It’s an emotive and fascinating subject, appealing to the voyeur in all of us, and as Piercy points out in her introduction to this anniversary edition, it has a new and concerning relevance today. More’s the pity then that she frames it within Jill and Donna’s sprawling love lives. The book has important things to say, and certain scenes, the casual mention of ‘coathanger abortions’, will haunt you beyond the final page, but they are lost in a web of largely uninteresting liaisons.
This would matter less if the surface narrative, based in part on Piercy’s own life, were more successful. I desperately wanted to empathise with the characters, and many of the themes explored in the book are familiar enough that this shouldn’t have been difficult: themes such as betrayal, sexual jealousy, first love, social ambition, frustrated desire…
The tears dry on my face as I stand and desire rips at me as if I had walked into a giant cactus. “There, there,” he mumbles. Points of heat flare where we touch. If I raise my face, I could kiss his mouth. Want to. But like this? Sodden, stupid, like grabbing a hot-water bottle.
Bizarre, almost comedic, imagery (a giant cactus?), unconventional syntax, and Lawrencian dialogue, combine to distance the reader from the text. Whilst Piercy rarely commits that most serious writing crime – redundancy – the preciousness of her style often results in a lessening of impact. Passages which might have been powerful cry out for a tighter, sparer, rawer hand.
Reviewing for the ER is the perfect excuse to bookmark and revisit every saucy scene, of which there are plenty (I’ll claim the post-its back on expenses). But there is more passion in the descriptions of making pasta sauce than there is in the romping. Perhaps this authorial detachment is deliberate, after all many of the couplings are unhappy, not to mention baffling; or perhaps it is just me? If this book makes one thing clear, it is that, when it comes to sex, we are all very different in our desires – but we are all at the mercy of our desires.
Oh I so wanted to love this monolith of a book. I wanted to feel Jill’s pain, pity Donna, hate Peter, lust after Howie. But I did not. I knew what I was supposed to feel, what the author wanted me to feel, but like many of the characters in the book, I couldn’t quite get there.
Marge Piercy, Braided Lives, PM Press, ISBN 9781604864427, Paperback, 456 pages, £14.99