Sunday, June 7, 2015

Listening to What Alice Forgot

During the Spring semester, I found that I didn't have as much time to read as I would like, so I started listening to audiobooks on the drives to work, when I was walking my dog, and while I cleaned. I have always been a little snobby about listening to audiobooks, though I'm not sure why. I guess I like the tangible material in my hand. That's probably why I also still tend to buy more hard copies of books than e-books despite owning both  a kindle and an iPad.

There are some books that I believe are worth reading yourself. For example, I can not listen to the audio versions of Ian McEwan's novels, not unless I have first read them myself. I'm greedy. I prefer to hold the book in my hand so that I can see and taste his sentences for myself.

I have, therefore, found that I prefer listening to audiobooks that I wouldn't necessarily rush to read, and I have found some new authors and books by doing so. One author I have recently discovered is Liane Moriarty, an Australian author with numerous books under her belt. I've listened to two books by her: Big Little Lies and What Alice Forgot. I enjoyed both immensely. In fact, I was so engrossed with Moriarty's stories and characters that I found myself prolonging drives and being more productive around the house so that I could continue to listen. For this post, however, I want to focus on What Alice Forgot.

Plot: This novel, at first, may not seem like an entirely new story. It tells the story of Alice Love, who, after hitting her head during a spinning class, wakes up having forgotten a decade of her life, including her marriage, her children, significant life events, and important friendships. The novel is written in alternating points of views of Alice, her sister, Elizabeth, and their grandmother, Franny, and I am honestly not sure which stories were my favorite. 

What I liked about the book: Stories about people who have lost their memories and learn important life lessons from the experience are not new, but this book surprised me. Moriarty's strengths, I am discovering, are her characters and her ability to deal with serious topics in a realistic--and often irreverent--way. The characters in What Alice Forgot are not simple, though they are at times predictable, and they respond to the circumstances around them in the most human ways. 

This story also leads a reader to see her life from a new perspective. As I read about Alice's experiences and misadventures coming to terms with her life in a new decade, I couldn't help but think about my life. How would I react if I woke up tomorrow morning having forgotten the last ten years? In what ways would I be different (for better or for worse)? Would the things that seem so important now be significant at all if I were still in my twenties? How did I become the person I am today? Would I make the same mistakes? Would I be pleased with where I am? Would I be disappointed? 

Conflicts (a couple of spoilers ahead): Though I think Moriarty creates interesting female characters who discover their own power to redefine themselves, she often falls into common representations of women, as wives and mothers in particular. And in What Alice Forgot, this is certainly true. Also, Moriarty's endings feel a little too tidy (and unnecessarily long to me). 

Here, I want to briefly outline a few problems I have with two of the characters and their stories.

  • Alice:   Alice awakes to discover that she is no longer a newlywed pregnant with her first child. Instead, she is disappointed to find that instead of being a carefree, laid back woman who often sleeps until noon, she has become a hard, sometimes bitter, and often busy, control freak who maintains a coffee addiction and keeps a personal trainer on payroll. With Alice, Moriarty often skirts the line, and in the end, I think, attempts to strike a balance, showing that women must find the balance between work/family and taking care of themselves. However, Alice, like many women today, MUST take care of things on her own, and somehow Moriarty, though she later redeems herself a little, condemns Alice for disciplining her children too much and for wanting life to be organized. Perhaps because I am definitely a Type-A personality, I didn't care for the condemnation. Alice is also, apparently, only complete with her man: “He made her more confident, funnier, smarter. He brought out all the things that were there already and let her be fully herself, so she seemed to shine with this inner light. He loved her so much, he made her seem even more lovable.”

  • Elizabeth:  One of the biggest surprises (and disappointments) in this book for me is Elizabeth, Alice's sister. I wasn't aware that the story would be told from alternating perspectives when I first started listening, and I especially wasn't prepared for one of those perspectives to be an infertile one. Elizabeth's story unfolds in her journal entries assigned as homework for her therapist. For most of the book, I found Elizabeth's story of infertility a realistic one. Moriarty truly captures the conflicting emotions of infertility: anger, grief, heartbreak, resentment, jealousy, and yes, even desperation. I also enjoyed that Elizabeth's journal entries were witty, funny, and wry. I often have a dark sense of humor regarding my own infertility that people don't like or get. It's a coping mechanism, as Elizabeth points out, so deal with it. Her story also deals with an infertile woman's sense of self. When walking through infertility, a woman often feels that she carries its mark on her breast like that well-known scarlet letter. She feels that people can see it when they see her. Elizabeth also explains what it is like to be an infertile in a fertile world: “The medication, the hormones and the relentless frustrations of our lives make us bitchy and you're not allowed to be bitchy in public or people won't like you.” What is disappointing about Elizabeth's story is that despite Elizabeth's reflections about what a waste it seems to spend so many years waiting and putting the rest of her life on hold, her story ends like any other infertility narrative: with a baby. Just when Elizabeth begins reconciling herself to a life without children (ignoring the collective, societal command, "Just adopt!"), she discovers she is pregnant. Because so many women's stories do not end with a child, isn't it time for a different kind of narrative?

Recommend? Yes! Despite some of its flaws, What Alice Forgot is a funny, insightful, and sometimes heartbreaking story that asks us to reflect on what is really important in our own lives.