Poetry, feminism, and political activism are the strands that have composed Marge Piercy’s public life for the past twenty-five years. Her seventh novel, apparently more autobiographical than previous books, explores the experiences that mark Jill Stuart’s passage into womanhood. Despite the book’s autobiographical basis, it is not primarily personal; like many women’s coming-of-age novels, it tells of entwined lives. Although Jill is essentially an outsider, many women of her generation passed through college in the 1950’s and through first marriages in the 1960’s to become the new feminists of the 1970’s. Why were they not permanently misshapen by the enormous pressures toward conformity, the feminine mystique, the rigid sex roles, the massive lecture classes, the fraternity pins and cashmere sweater sets, the rush to achieve marriage before the end of four college years? Answering these questions, Braided Lives is political in the broadest sense: it not only traces the convictions that grow from personal experiences but also contains a political message for the 1980’s.
Jill Stuart is able to forge an identity of her own, in part, because she is a chronic misfit. The Kazan-Jewish looks inherited from her mother do not suit the name that comes from her Welsh father. Very few white children attend her Detroit grade school—and the only other Jewish girl in her neighborhood is not one of them. (Brown-skinned Sarah Altweiler will, however, become important in the civil rights movement.) In high school, the rest of the A-track students are middle-class and socially exclusive; the girls from Jill’s neighborhood hang out on street corners, get pregnant, and drop out of high school. In college, Jill is too poor, has the wrong clothes, takes the wrong courses (hard ones), and will never be rushed by sororities or dated by football players; in her vacation and part-time jobs, she is a college girl misplaced among working women. To the families of her men friends, she is from the wrong social class or of the wrong religion (usually both). Piercy does not, however, dwell on Jill’s discomfort. The people who felt at home in Ann Arbor in the 1950’s disappeared into corporations, suburbs, station wagons, and Valium—and some of the women did not discover their own worth until twenty years later, when their husbands replaced them with newer models. Because Jill does not fit and is too stubborn to make herself fit, she learns at a Midwest college during the conformist years how to examine, to ask questions, to care, and to take responsibility for making the world more tolerable.
Like many twentieth century women’s books, Braided Lives deliberately collectivizes the center of interest. Some of the women treated in the novel are seriously damaged. Callie, pregnant before the end of high school, is sent to prison for shooting her husband with his own Police Special when he abuses their daughter. Theo is sexually victimized by the psychoanalyst her parents have enlisted to “cure” her lesbianism. Others survive, or rise again, or discover their own strength. Alberta Mann, who serves as Jill’s model of a mature and politically aware woman in the 1950’s, leaves her father’s law firm to join another that specializes in domestic disputes. Piercy braids the threads of many stories into a political lifeline, a net that links the women who have touched at various points in the past.
Braided Lives thus admirably avoids the charge that feminism is a middle-class luxury. Piercy downplays adolescent emotional slights; she provides no guaranteed income to support her heroine in a search for self-realization, nor is Jill trapped and destroyed by the grind of poverty and circumstances beyond her control. She takes control, exercises options. Conscious of her position as outsider, she never unthinkingly adopts the standards of worlds into which she passes; she questions male values, bourgeois values, and the values of the intellectual elite.
The relationship between Jill and her roommate/cousin Donna Stuart is the book’s central thread. The two are light and dark twins who may function as alternate sides of the same personality or alternate versions of the scholarship woman trying to make something of herself. Donna has an acceptably WASPish appearance and is thankful that the scholarship gives her in her college years the opportunity of finding a man who will supply the later lifestyle she craves. Donna is also sexually voracious, or at least constantly involved with her sexuality: as a freshman, she lies about her virginity; she confesses to having sex with her sister’s husband, wears slinky clothes given to her by a married man, picks up a townie greaser who rapes her, flees from one involvement to another amid mounting webs of lies, false facades, and efforts to get money needed for abortions. What Donna seeks, however, is only peripherally linked to sex itself. Her sexuality is both an unpredictable appetite and a means to get from men something...
(The entire section is 2053 words.)