The best movies about women — Tar and Women Talking — didn’t get much love at the box office, or at last week’s Academy Awards.
So, let’s spread the word about new fiction I’ve loved that’s by and about women.
Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus is laugh-out-loud funny. That’s not to say it’s not serious. It’s the 1960’s and Elizabeth Zott is a chemist in Los Angeles who hasn’t completed her master’s degree because she’s raped by her thesis advisor. (To escape, she stabs him with the Number 2 pencil she keeps tucked in her bun.) Trust me, this is a comedy. Elizabeth is like no other: she’s beautiful and unbending…until she bends and understandably breaks, after the death of the one man who loves her for her mind. And now she’s pregnant by him. With the help of her sentient dog, Elizabeth picks herself up and mothers — again, like no other — their precocious child. Broke, Elizabeth agrees to host a daytime cooking show, but ignores the cue cards. Instead, she teaches viewers the science of meal preparation. Empowerment!
Someone Else’s Shoes by Jo Jo Moyes. I’ve avoided Moyes since I read — and ugly cried — Me Before You, the story of a caretaker who falls in love with a patient who insists on and succeeds in a planned death. I get a headache when I cry, so I duck well-told heartache. Anyway, I’m here to tell you that Moyes’ latest is a feminist caper without tears. Sad sack Sam picks up someone else’s bag at the gym; the sexy red shoes in it jump starts her tired life. The same day, the owner of said shoes Nisha sees her jet-set life disappear. Nisha will only get her divorce settlement if she returns those shoes. What’s so important about those heels? This is a smart romp, a joy.
Trespasses by Louise Kennedy. An assured first novel set during the 1970’s Troubles, this story is set is a village near Belfast peopled by Catholics and Protestants. There, pretty young schoolteacher Cushla lives with her gin-soaked mother and helps out at the family’s bar. Cushla aides a student’s poor Catholic family, whose father is savagely beaten. Too, she takes up with an older married Protestant man who is a barrister defending IRA members. Doesn’t Cushla deserve love? I didn’t see it coming, but her involvement with the family and the barrister causes the tragedy at the heart of this tale. Slowly, beautifully told.
Speaking of films by or about women, I attended for the first time the Athena Film Fest at Barnard College, now in its thirteen year. Over three days, the fest screens dozens of films by or about women, including student work. Each film is followed by a moderated q & a.
We saw “The Lost King,” a 2022 Stephen Frears film starring Sally Hawkins as an amateur historian who doggedly seeks — and finds! — the unmarked grave of Richard III, the last Plantagenet king. Based on the true story of a woman who cures herself, and her marriage, by taking a chance.
We — my dear Tess and I — steeled ourselves for a screening of “Women Talking,” which is more about the act of leaving than the reason they’re leaving (multigenerational sexual violence and mental abuse of women and girls.) It’s a visually wondrous film, with moments of laughter and silliness. I’m glad I was sitting beside Tess because the ending is so wrenching I needed to hang on to her as I wept. (Yes, I got a headache.) The moderated q & a that followed was a thoughtful, necessary tonic.
Bravo, Barnard! I’ll be back.