Some books lend themselves to speed-reading, urging you to devour the story with pages turned at a breakneck pace. But other books require a more leisurely perusal, one in which you nibble at the prose, allowing yourself to linger over writing that has been so skillfully crafted. Given that Kate Walbert’s latest novel begins with suffragist Dorothy Townsend starving herself to death in the name of her cause, it is perhaps unsurprising that A Short History of Women falls into the latter camp.
Beginning with Dorothy’s death, A Short History of Women follows the lives of the Townsend women through several generations, skipping back and forth between Dorothy’s struggle in England at the turn of the 20th century all the way up to her great-granddaughters facing their own travails in modern-day America. Through these interlocking sketches, Walbert creates a dual history—one that is personal to each Townsend woman and uniquely her own, while also universal to all women no matter their time or place. Whether campaigning for women’s rights, finding success as a chemist and professor, protesting the war in Iraq, or arranging play dates on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, each woman grapples with finding her purpose and asserting herself in the world around her. Through this wide-sweeping lens, Walbert deftly examines “The Woman Question,” that is the ever-shifting, always evolving role of women in society.
Walbert’s prose is intricate but fluid, effortlessly adjusting in style to evoke the various time periods while shuttling the reader backward and forward through history. Lyrical and dreamlike, her writing is often punctuated by astonishing turns of phrase and vivid imagery. Although her topic will particularly appeal to female readers (this would be a wonderful book club selection), her writing is so multifaceted, so honest, that any reader looking for a thoughtful and challenging read will be rewarded. At one point in the novel, Dorothy’s granddaughter remarks, “What I am trying to do is to aim for something real . . . something that is not just an approximation of real.” One cannot help but feel that this was also Walbert’s motivation in writing A Short History of Women; fortunately for readers, she succeeds, demonstrating that even within the pages of fiction, truth can be found.
Stephenie Harrison lives in Nashville.