Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2021
Set in the seventies in Sydney, The Women and the Girls is a tale of female friendship which invites us to define what it is that constitutes ‘home’.
Three women, quite different in their circumstances and nature, come together, along with their children, to create a household when each decides that her marriage is not meeting up to expectations.
For Libby the earth mother figure, it is a vague feeling that she is missing out on the joy she expected from hearth and home. This is despite or perhaps because of her focus and talent in that area – she can whip up a meal from nowhere and inject a feeling of warmth and bonhomie into any domestic occasion.
For Carol, newly emigrated from the UK with her daughter and husband Steve, it is the ever-increasing control and sense of threat from her spouse that, one rainy night, causes her to move out of home with no clear idea where she can go. She finally lands on Libby’s front verandah, as Libby is the only mum from school she feels she even slightly knows.
Anna, a successful and ambitious businesswoman (though emerging and reinventing herself from a poor background and unhappy childhood), finds herself missing the element of sexual passion in her marriage to Myles.
After having two children, their sex life drops away to nothing and it is this malaise about the missing physical and hence emotional connection that decides her to also leave with her daughters in tow. She has the means to offer her investment property to the other two women as a solution for them all.
Predictably, there are many ups and downs with this arrangement. Each woman is looking for something slightly different from her escape, but in the end they are all looking for an enhanced sense of self – something the seventies era seems to stand for. The ongoing revolution and evolution in the status of women had somehow passed them by in its first iteration and they are determined to seek it out.
Interestingly there is no doubt that these marriages have some value and there is certainly love within them, in its various forms. Forgiveness plays its part, but so too does the crucial element of choice – having choice was one of the most important social changes for women in the sixties and seventies, brought on largely by the availability of more reliable contraception, coupled with gradually increasing availability of education and hence occupation and financial independence. Legal rights have been slower in coming but progress continues.
Laura Bloom enthusiastically evokes the seventies with its many charms and blotches – many elements of everyday life get a look in: sexual mores, social habits and practices, music, fashion, hair, child rearing and food for example. There is a good deal of reminiscence for the reader who was there!
There is also much to be learnt for the younger reader – it is not merely a rose-tinted glance at what is now ‘historic’ time for the millennials and beyond. It is instructive to understand how far women have come and how hard won many of the things now taken for granted were.
The sustenance we gain from equal relationships and from a safe and supportive home is the heart and soul of this work, and indeed of a healthy society. This theme gives a grace to The Women and The Girls, which elevates it well beyond some definitions of ‘popular’ fiction. Accessibility and readability walk hand in hand with the intellectual fodder of this book and will, I hope, ensure it of a wide audience.
Thank you to Allen & Unwin for the review copy and for facilitating such a pleasant conversation with Laura.