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Five Generations Of Female Longing, Frustration

Kate Walbert's melancholy novel A Short History of Women may be short, but it's not sweet. The book documents the inner lives of five generations of women, beginning in the 1880s and ending in the present.

If families can be said to genetically pass on emotional colorings, the way hair and eye colorings are passed on, then the Townsend clan carries forward a dominant tendency toward passionate renunciation. The British matriarch of the family, Dorothy Trevor Townsend, was a suffragist who went on a hunger strike in 1914. She starves herself on principle, "to make something happen." She was buried, her daughter tells us, "in [a] simple box, a lavender Votes for Women sash across her small, unquivering bosom."

That daughter, Evelyn, sternly closes the lid on the memory of her mother's martyrdom. She eventually immigrates to America and becomes a professor of chemistry at Barnard College, devoting herself to science and resolutely tamping down her desire for intimate relations with other humans. But at the end of her life, Evelyn hollowly muses, "It only goes so far, your work ..."

The message of the Townsend family lies in repetition, so on we go. In the next generation, Evelyn's niece, also named Dorothy, is a wife and mother of three who divorces her husband after 50 years of a rather listless marriage, takes to wearing only black and white clothes, and becomes politicized in her old age: She's arrested in 2003 for taking clandestine photos of soldiers' coffins at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. This Dorothy is regarded as a kind of annoying kook by her own two adult daughters, who themselves live in a state of post-Sept. 11 repressed dread.

Given its jaundiced attitude toward women's activism and the transformative possibilities of social change, A Short History of Women might be subtitled, "Damned if you do; damned if you don't" — a risky message for any novel that wants to be widely read to embrace.

But to give Walbert her due, she's no spinner of feminist fairy tales. Indeed, she is ruthless in dramatizing the limited, mostly disappointing solutions each successive generation of Townsend women arrives at in answer to what used to be called "The Woman Question" — or, as one of the Dorothys puts it, "The Problem of Us."

Walbert is also ambitious in the way she tells her story: The narrative bops around chronologically in a style that might be thought of as "Virginia Woolf Taking Shorthand." The lives of the Townsend women intersect with larger events in 20th century history — VJ Day; 1970s consciousness-raising sessions; the aforementioned Sept. 11 — and Walbert beautifully evokes the moods of those various times with a few spare sentences.

But — and you must have known there was a "but" coming here — A Short History of Women ultimately slips into the category of novels that I admire, but don't like. Maybe it's the overall sense of suffocation, the way Walbert's story elegantly loops around, repeating scenes and conveying the implicit political message that the more things change, the more they stay the same. One after another, her women succumb to quiet deaths of body or spirit through starvation, drinking and emotional denial.

It's all so measured, so beautifully wrought. The most affirming finale here belongs to the second Dorothy, who goes ungently into that good night, blogging her feminist anger out into the ether. Blogging. It's a realistic and restrained ending, of course, but, by the end of Walbert's novel, I was ready for good old midcult catharsis. Instead of blogging, I wanted somebody to throw a brick.

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