Four stars, read in February 2018.
I was drawn into this hard, once it got going. The audio narration is excellent, but gives no indications of the physical format—sections that are printed in italics, occasional illuminating “chapter” titles (they’re not really chapters but what do I call them?)—so the book wasn’t really working until I got familiar with the print copy. After that, I couldn’t put it down.
I have a lot to think about, still. But if the ending was supposed to comfort me, it didn’t (although I have now seen that there’s a sequel and that definitely makes things interesting). The frustrating thing all along was that none of the things that happened had to happen, people could just not do them, do something else instead, but they don’t, and they don’t really even try. Which is how these cycles remain in place, because people either don’t know they’re in the cycle or they know and assume they can’t get out. All of the characters participate, and none of them are villains, even the ones who are totally villains. They’re so normal, so average and relatable, and that makes it all worse.
But while there’s sharp social commentary all over the place, and I am the first person to appreciate sharp social commentary, especially concerning the destructiveness of religion—what I do not appreciate is when female characters are written the way Tara Duane was. The men are rationalized up to their ears: they do what they have to do for their families, and that’s why the cycle can never break, because everyone is only doing what “must” be done to protect their own. McInerney is criticizing them, not justifying them, but there is at least a reason given.
So what’s Tara’s excuse? Or rather, why wasn’t she given one? Everything she does is calculated, hugely damaging to someone else, and for absolutely no reason. She’s just a bitch, the kind of character we can use to indulge our worst misogynistic instincts, the kind we’re supposed to despise. We don’t get to see the story from her perspective, like we do with Tony and Jimmy and Ryan and Georgie and Maureen; no, she’s just there to deliberately, gleefully fuck things up for the men, serving no purpose but to ruin their lives so we can feel happy when something terrible finally happens to her. The whole point is that it’s all wrong throughout society, and no one person or belief or institution is to blame. But in this book, we are given a very obvious scapegoat.
Both Georgie and Maureen are the alternatives to Tara, though they perform the same function in a different way. Because these are the only options for women, who are meant to be pawns, not active players: fuck things up for the men accidentally, by being frail and weak like Maureen; fuck things up for the men incidentally, by being a pawn like Georgie; or fuck things up for the men intentionally, by thinking you’re an active player, like Tara. Mammy, whore, or bitch.
This dynamic is explicitly addressed in the book, but it doesn’t feel like we’re meant to notice how it plays out right there on the surface. Maybe I just don’t have enough faith in the average reader, but look, I’m pretty justified in not having much faith in the average reader (or person, really). We’re all still blind to huge amounts of misogyny in our everyday lives, even while we’re trying to point it out sometimes. I hate not being able to tell whether someone’s criticizing it or just doing it, or pretending to criticize it while actually doing it, or thinking they’re criticizing it but actually doing it. I hate that I can’t tell in this specific instance, but I’m willing to hope for the best. This book is worth the benefit of the doubt.