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Sunday Book Review: I Don’t Know How She Does It

[ 21 ] August 21, 2016 |
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By Evan-Amos – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14734946

The following is a guest post by frequent commenter bianca steele:

“Home is where the good mother is, baking for her children.”

If you watch the trailer for the new movie, Bad Moms, there’s a scene where the main character, played by Mila Kunis, dares to serve store-bought baked goods at a school fund-raising event.  The trailer suggests that this act is the culmination of a mini-breakdown that either has, or will soon, eventuate in mom-on-mom action and jello shots (it’s from the creators of The Hangover).  Before the character can get to this awful place, she has to suffer a series of distressing occurrences that include a sick dog that makes her late for work, coffee spilled all over her outfit after she’s startled by scary fellow mom Christina Applegate, a missed client conference, spaghetti spilled all over her outfit after she tries to eat lunch in her car, and being knocked flat on her back by a small child at sports practice, all culminating with an “emergency PTA meeting” at which she’s presented with a ridiculously long list of forbidden treat ingredients that only starts with nuts and gluten.  The movie is 1 hour 41 minutes long, and I’d estimate this series of events, onscreen, must take at a minimum fifteen minutes, probably at least twenty.  One might guess that they wouldn’t dare show that character behaving so horrifically with any less build-up.

The book I Don’t Know How She Does It lets us see its heroine serve store-bought treats without the apologies, though with at least as many guilty feelings.

When I read the first pages of I Don’t Know How She Does It (it was published in 2002 but I read it for the first time not long ago), “I don’t know how she does it” is exactly what I was thinking.  I couldn’t figure out how Allison Pearson managed to make her main character so damn unlikable from the very first page (on which the title of this post appears).  Well, not how she managed to do it, so much as how she dared to do it.  As the book starts, it’s one AM, and Kate Reddy is pounding store-bought mince pies with a rolling pin, and sprinkling powdered sugar on them, to make them look homemade.  Right away we know we’re in England, of course, because here in the States we don’t generally eat mystery-meat pies with sugar on top, even at Christmastime.  But we also know we’re in England because this novel is wallowing in the ridiculousness of its main character in a way American writers rarely permit themselves to indulge.

Kate has been up for hours; she just got off a plane from Stockholm by way of New York, she has to be up early to go into the City, and instead of going upstairs to husband and bed, she is forging homemade pies.  She practically introduces herself to the reader by explaining what a crazy person she is.  She hates that she has to bring a nice, preferably homemade food item to her daughter’s school’s Christmas party, but she feels she’s obliged to do it, because she remembers how her mother’s friends gossiped about the lazy women who got their contributions ready-made from the corner store.  She knows she’s wrong to hope her husband will fall asleep, so she can just have a shower and then go straight to bed.  She knows he’s right when he comes downstairs and tells her she’s going way, way overboard, and that the nanny has certainly not been moving her sifter and other utensils around the kitchen.  It’s just that she never actually cooks.  She tells the reader all these things, with no setup whatsoever.

When I was young, many years ago, there was an idea about that a novelist could make a character likable, almost automatically, simply by writing about her in the first person.  The reader would read “I,” would “identify,” and the character could then get away with a certain amount of what might be called “questionable” behavior, without being questioned.  It couldn’t have been an entirely free pass, even then, of course.  But the idea was that the writer demonstrably felt her narrator was likable enough, and the reader would suspend disbelief and feel the same.  As far as I can tell, this no longer is the case, at least among American readers.  Now readers come to every story with critical thinking skills on high alert, ready to execute moral judgment on any character who misbehaves or has inappropriate feelings—one of the worst of which is “lack of likability.”  Look at the online discussions when The Hunger Games came out, full of condemnation of Katniss for trying too hard to be strong in the face of the abuse she’d suffered, and the economic difficulties she faced.

But Pearson starts off her novel as if she can rely on readers to root for Kate, and want to spend 300 pages with her, pretty much automatically–without delaying introduction of the character’s bad points until far into the book, and without piling on markers of “likability” the way Bad Moms appears to.  Kate Reddy, the narrator and protagonist of the story, is an investment banker with two children under six, an architect husband, and a London townhouse they can’t quite afford.  She travels too much for work and can’t quite rely on her housecleaner and nanny, and she can’t figure out what to do about it except to hope things don’t get worse.  On top of traveling, Kate is responsible for buying Christmas gifts for children and godchildren (these apparently must be purchased two or three years in advance and placed in a designated storage area), planning sufficiently impressive birthday parties, and getting on lists for private schools.  She seems to be the only person in the household who thinks to throw out the rotten fruit at the bottom of the fruit bowl, or to wash the dishtowels occasionally and replace them with new ones.  The nanny lets the kids have candy, which their mother has forbidden, and has been allowing them, for some reason, to leave piles of raisins in the corner of the kitchen floor after they’ve been spilled.

Her in-laws despise her and think she’s a failure as a woman and a wife.  Her father, whose head for numbers Kate inherited, is a gambler and low-rent swindler.  Her husband thinks she isn’t home enough and is ignoring him.  Her nice, upper-crust bosses are giving the male up-and-comers too much free rein to be their own sexist selves.  The only higher-ranking woman at her firm is unmarried and childless, and looks down on Kate as unserious.  Her male assistant is out for her job.  She can’t compete with the neighborhood women who have plenty of time for PTA’s and volunteering and let it show.

It’s always fun to notice things that date a novel, and here there are a few: In the first chapter, Kate’s nanny gets her toddler son’s curls cut off while she’s out of town on business, without consulting her, because what were they going to do, have a conference call to discuss the question?  Also at the beginning of the novel, she gets to the office on the morning after the trip and has to confront the e-mails that have accumulated during that time without her having seen them.  Now, she would have been in contact by phone and text with babysitter and husband, and maybe even the five-year-old, all throughout the trip, and would have checked her e-mail on the way home.  (Though a few chapters later, Kate has a Blackberry and periodically logs in to check e-mail from hotels, so maybe the book was written while e-communication norms were still evolving.)  And later on, Kate finds herself unable to find a town car, because none of the services can send her one fast enough when she calls, and her employer now asks employees to handle this themselves.  She ends up by chance with a beat-up, reeking compact driven by a somewhat too laid-back philosophy student who freely offers child-rearing and life advice.  Now she would just call Uber.

Whether the change in company policy might disproportionately affect women, by taking away the extra “pull” involved in having an investment bank hire your car for you, isn’t mentioned at all.  This isn’t a terrifically deep examination of the issues that affect working women, but instead a comic exploration of one woman who has just about everything that possibly could go wrong with her life, actually go wrong.  Her contractor vanished after installing only the top halves of the mermaid-design ceramic tiles in her downstairs bathroom.  Her daughter vomits on her mother-in-law’s duvet in the middle of the night.  She can’t operate the stroller on a family vacation without the nanny.  She isn’t sure whether her daughter still likes the food that was her favorite the month before.  She comes downstairs at her in-laws’ house, after the night with the vomiting—where the men, and in particular her husband, are able to see her—looking frowzy and unmade-up.  Her father is being pursued by creditors, and shows up drunk at her office to ask for money.  She accidentally sends a sexually explicit e-mail, intended for her American colleague, Candy, to a new male client, and can’t figure out a way to shut down the subsequent lewd e-mail conversation (or the ensuing transatlantic flirtation).  She can’t manage to make and keep a lunch date with her best friend from college.  Her nanny takes days off at the worst possible times.  Eventually, she forgets to sell her clients’ shares per company policy to have more cash on hand, and is saved only by Alan Greenspan’s unpredictability.

There’s a lot going on.  We get a lot of details about Kate’s children—and about her work, her travel, the dinner party she tries to throw, her nanny, and her fellow mothers and coworkers.  The most important of these is Momo Gumeratne, a recent graduate of the LSE whose background is the upper classes of Sri Lanka and the Cheltenham Ladies’ College (which apparently is very posh), who takes part in a training class for newcomers that Kate is pulled in at the last minute to teach.  Momo is very naïve and is shocked both by the men’s behavior and by Kate’s way of dealing with them.  A major subplot involves a project they’ve been assigned to because the client is interested in diversity.

But really a lot of the novel consists of Kate listing things she did wrong and reasons she’s not a good mother.  Since Bridget Jones seems to be a lot like that, too, maybe this is characteristic of the circa-2000 British ”chick-lit” trend.  I Don’t Know How She Does It is jam-packed with eventfulness, and it’s very funny.  Kate Reddy does come off as sympathetic, at least to me, and it’s clear she’s intended to.  She’s the only one of her colleagues who can be bothered to remember Momo’s name.  She obviously loves her children very much.  The reader wants her to be happy, and . . .

There are SPOILERS starting from about here.

. . . hopes she won’t resort to an affair with Mr. America to find it.  And what happens is this:  Kate starts fantasizing about a garden and a house she can afford to decorate, about a slower pace and better schools.  Her husband leaves her.  Momo is subjected to Internet-era sexual harassment by the guy who’s been hassling Kate herself, not-quite-sexually, for years.  They win their bid, through hard work and an appeal to the firm’s somewhat imaginary diversity, and then they and Kate’s girlfriends go a little bit Office Space.

So there are two main stories here: First: Kate Reddy discovers that she doesn’t want to be a working mom after all, and quits her unbearable job.  Second: Momo, with Kate’s help, destroys her harasser.  What we have here is a made-for-Hollywood ending, though there is a little “The End?” kind of twist.  It may be foreshadowed by the hints that even on her pay, conspicuous consumption at London rates is more than they can afford, but we weren’t going to get the kind of ending where Kate tells all those meddlers to go to hell and figures out how to have her career and her family too.

But the reader doesn’t want to see Kate defeated; we don’t want Kate to have to quit.  Maybe we don’t like the kind of work she’s doing, and we don’t think her colleagues are worthy of her and think there’s something better for her out there, but being an upper-middle class non-working housewife doesn’t seem like something she’s cut out for, in any way, shape, or form.  She admires her mother and sister, and they’re relatively traditional.  But they both work.  And their integration, as women, into the community, is based on a working-class ethos that—while it gives them a way to feel useful and valued—causes them to suffer, too, if in different ways from her, and leaves them without male (or for that matter any other) companionship they can rely on.  Kate leaned on her intelligence, independence, and the prospect of a career to get her from the itinerant life of an unreliable father, through school and university to marriage and the City, and conversion to Stepford Wife-hood doesn’t seem like an improvement. But in the logic of these things, it has to happen.

It feels a tiny bit better because of the other story, ironically, the one about sexual harassment.  Momo doesn’t have to quit.  Even better, the biggest asshole in the book gets what he deserves.  Still, that only happens because Kate’s willing to put her own job on the line instead, to behave unethically, and in a way that could very easily backfire on her.  In other words, it’s not very realistic.  In the real world, Momo would most likely suffer what Kate initially foresees for her:

Momo Gumeratne will make a formal complaint about the behavior of Christopher Bunce to her line manager, Rod Task.  Task will refer the complaint to Human Resources.  Momo will then be suspended on full pay pending an internal inquiry.  At the first meeting of the inquiry, which I will be invited to attend, it will be publicly noted that Momo Gumeratne is of previously impeccable character.  It will be silently noted that Chris Bunce is our leading performer who last year moved 400 million pounds of business. Quite soon, the offense against Momo will be referred to as “a bad business” or simply “that Bunce business.”

After three months at home—enough time for her to start feeling anxious and depressed—Momo will be called into the office.  A financial settlement will be offered.  The Cheltenham Lady in her will see justice done.  The inquiry panel will be shocked.  They too want justice to be done; it’s just that the nature of the evidence is—how shall we say?—problematic.  Casually, imperceptibly, it will be implied that Momo’s career in the City could be over.  She is a young woman of exceptional promise, but these things have a way of being misinterpreted.  No smoke without fire, all tremendously unfortunate.  If news of the pornographic computer images, say, were to get out to the media. . . .

Two days later, Momo Gumeratne will settle out of court for an undisclosed sum.  When she walks down the steps of Edwin Morgan Forster for the last time, a woman reporter from the TV news will poke a microphone in her face and ask her to give details of what happened.  Is it true that they called her an Asian Babe and ran porno pictures of her?  Lowering her lovely head, Momo will decline to comment.  Next day, four newspapers will run a story on page 3.  One headline reads ASIAN BABE IN CITY PORN PICS STORM.  Momo’s denial will appear in the second-to-last paragraph.  Soon after, she will take a job abroad and pray to be forgotten.  Bunce will hold on to his job and the black mark against his character will be erased by a steady tide of profits.  And nothing will change.  That much is certain.

That wouldn’t make a good story, a story people would want to read.

In line with the rest of the book, the reader doesn’t get any commentary about whether the kinds of harassment going on in the post-Internet, post-diversity world are worse than what Kate or her predecessors experienced.  Or whether Momo’s anticipated lifelong childlessness is ominous for the chances of women like Kate in the future.

It’s only fiction, after all.  Hollywood comedies like Bad Moms tend not to want to startle the viewer without reason, so if viewers are thought to expect a certain kind of normality, anything that isn’t “normal” in that sense will be either very obviously funny or the result of a terribly unfortunate situation, or both.  In the kind of novel that I Don’t Know How She Does It is, though, part of the deal is the understanding that the main character is only one woman.  It goes along with the first-person narration and the quirkiness verging on unlikability.  Part of the deal is also that things won’t get too deep.  Working mothers have a tough deal, but Kate’s situation, with her narrow-minded mother-in-law, her childhood brushes with her father’s lawlessness, and her longstanding need to meet a certain standard of respectability, is unique.  Sexual harassment is bad, but Pearson isn’t going to bother us with conspicuous political messages, any more than the makers of The Hangover and Bad Moms are going to.

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Comments (21)

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  1. heckblazer says:

    I feel compelled to note that mincemeat pies do not contain any meat, mystery or otherwise. They are instead filed with a mix of dried fruit, spices and booze.

  2. Dr. Acula says:

    I have seen the trailer for Bad Moms, and it repulsed me.

  3. LosGatosCA says:

    I unashamedly tell people that since my wife worked full time, part time, no time at different stages of our kids lives the family recipes we used all started with

    1. Get the car keys

    and included the secret ingredients ‘ATM card’ and enter your ‘secret PIN.’

    I can’t tell you how many times I stopped at Costco to get cookies, cakes, lime shrimp w/cilantro, etc. never feeling guilty for a single second. After many years my wife was willing to adopt the same approach but with more upscale suppliers (ex. Nothing Bundt Cakes) but she’s never been able to kick the guilt.

    Even while she was cheer team treasurer for all four years of HS for our teenager, she always felt she was inadequate. Even while other non-volunteering moms and fathers could really be insensitive or self absorbed twits sometimes – with criticism or usually quite dumb suggestions.

    It’s really tough work being a mom and managing a career. Doubly tough because of this hard wired guilt trip they put themselves through.

    • Bijan Parsia says:

      I’d be interested to know whether this attitude strongly varies by region and by urbanness/class. My impression observing New York City based well off relations is that bought stuff is fine for event esp if its fancy. There, as in the UK, going out for key events is also more normal than I experienced growing up in suburbia. (Space makes a difference as does availability of suitable venues and, of course, cash.)

    • Anna in PDX says:

      My kids are grown, but I bring store-bought stuff to potlucks all the time. Nope, no problems here. I think at some point you stop caring if people are going to find you not-a-perfect-woman.

  4. junker says:

    Not quite a PTA story, but at her last job my wife and her boss and coworkers had a monthly potluck meeting, where everyone had to bring something to eat and share for their staff meeting. Because of her commute my wife would leave for work at about 7:30 and get home at 5:30. We have a small daughter, so after getting home, eating dinner, and getting her to bed, her earliest free time started at 7:00 PM. Yet without fail, she felt extremely guilty if she didn’t make something from scratch for this potluck, even if it consumed the rest of her evening.

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