Book Review

The good wife

Caitlin Flanagan shows how hard it is to make a living espousing traditional values

CorrespondentMay 7, 2006 

Every once in a while, as a magazine reader, you get lucky. A writer emerges from the print din with a string of stories, published over a period of weeks, months or even years, that chime perfectly: Michael Lewis' wry coverage of the 1996 presidential campaign for the New Republic; Laurie Colwin's charming, funny food essays in Gourmet; Malcolm Gladwell's frighteningly smart early New Yorker pieces.

When such strung pearls of glorious writing come your way, you seize on your good fortune. You become acutely aware of the magazine's publication schedule. You scan the table of contents when the rag in question arrives in your mailbox. If the writer's new article is there, the title leaps out at you. You save it for evening, when the kids are asleep. Or you read it immediately, right there on the stoop. All along, there's a kind of built-in pre-nostalgia, because you know that it won't last; you know that a good series of articles is an ephemeral thing, like spring rain or Joe Piscopo's film career.

So it was with a series of book reviews written by Caitlin Flanagan for the Atlantic Monthly beginning in 2002. Flanagan used the review format as a springboard to write long, funny essays on the ins and outs of contemporary motherhood. She wrote about Martha Stewart and conjugal relations and clutter management and nannies. At the time, I was a new mother myself, and it was sweet relief to find Flanagan's domestic essays wedged in among the more usual Atlantic fare: poundingly rational arguments for and against going to war in Iraq; stuffy travel pieces about the Dordogne; mystifying rainbow-hued maps with impenetrable statistics next to them.

Flanagan was testy and full of notions and in favor of all kinds of untenable positions; in short, a good read. She was a defender of old-fashioned housewifery, an admirer of Erma Bombeck, a believer in being kind to one's husband. These are all things I support, if not personally, then at least in the abstract. More importantly, she was funny. Mothering, she wrote, "used to be a rather private affair (requiring, principally, a playpen, a backyard, a television set and a coffeepot)." Above all, she wrote about stuff I was thinking about. It was as though there were a pipeline from my brain to the "Story Ideas" folder on her computer.

But it wasn't long -- maybe three or four articles -- before I realized that while I still lapped up her bright, lively writing, I was sort of starting to, well, hate her. When I first encountered her charming veneration of old-fashioned womanhood, I mistook it for something it wasn't: irony, or at least a kind of wistful yearning for a way of life that all reasonable people have agreed is completely, blessedly, entirely over. But I began to see that her writing was more prescriptive than descriptive: Seduce your husband. Take good care of your house. And above all, don't go to work.

Reading Flanagan became a strange, gripping addiction, the kind of compulsion more usually associated with bad-self-esteem-fueled love affairs than with sitting quietly in my armchair reading the Atlantic. It all came to a head with her cover story on nannies, her last piece for the Atlantic before she went to work for the New Yorker. The premise was basically that feminists have bought their freedom at the expense of the brown-skinned women who care for their babies. It contained the line, "When a mother works, something is lost." It was a classic shot across the bow.

Now her essays have been gathered into a book, with a bit of editing and, as they say in the biz, streamlining. Overall, Flanagan does make some attempt to soften some her earlier pronouncements. She admits that the nanny story, as it appeared in the Atlantic, was "convoluted and slightly insane." She has excised the line that I mentioned above. She also includes in the book a somewhat moving account of her battle with cancer, and a tender tribute to her own mother. Flanagan is making a bid, if not for sympathy, then for recognition as, you know, a human being.

Unfortunately, bringing all the stories under one roof has a side effect: You see how unrelentingly self-serving and hypocritically conflicted Flanagan's vision is. It's hard not to notice that while she says women ought to stay at home and make life pleasant for the children and the men, she herself doesn't exactly do that. She has a housekeeper and a nanny who do it for her while she writes. Yet she opines, "The current upper-middle-class practice of outsourcing even the most intimate tasks may free up valuable time for an important deposition, but it by no means raises the caliber of one's home life."

Then she goes on to describe a head lice outbreak at her kids' swanky L.A. school. "Parents were given brochures for a service that takes care of the problem in one's home." She considers it, but finally decides, "having someone come to my home to delouse my children seemed perilously close to having someone (presumably not the same person) come in and service my husband on nights when I'd rather put on my flannel nightie and watch Dateline NBC."

This is the kind of thing that can drive a rational reader insane. Flanagan castigates women for going to work and leaving the kids with a nanny, employs a nanny herself, then claims the high ground because she refuses to pay someone to delouse her kid.

Flanagan rues, again and again, the lowering of standards in the home. She laments a lost world "of good meals turned out in orderly fashion, of fevers cooled without a single frantic call to the pediatrician, of clothes mended and repaired and pressed back in to useful service rather than discarded to the rag heap as soon as a button pops or a sleeve unravels."

The final chapter of the book alerts us to how very personal this sense of loss is. It is here that she tells the story of her own mother, who one day grew weary of her life as a housewife and went back to work. To hear Flanagan tell it, their house was never a happy place again. Flanagan's writing, with its angry bossiness, suddenly makes sense. She is furious, but not at society or feminism or working parents, not at the straw men she sets up in her book, but at her mom.

Isn't this what we suspect of all finger-wagging pundits? That there's some personal hurt in their past that drives their sanctimony? Flanagan is such a brilliant, smart, funny writer that even as you roil at her point-making, you want to save her. You want to pull her over to the side of the angels. You want her to be brilliant, smart, funny and, for once, right.

(Claire Dederer is a Seattle critic who frequently reviews books about women's issues for The News & Observer.)

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