I’ve Been Reading: Winner of the National Book Award

Shit, I had some vague idea I might write this book one day, but it seems Jincy Willett has beaten me to the punch (and undoubtedly done a better job of it than I would have).  

Winner of the National Book Award concerns twin sisters, Dorcas and Abigail Mather. Dorcas is all brain, and Abigail is all appetite: while Dorcas grows up, tart and intelligent, a librarian who loves bird watching and heavy drinking, and is always armed with a witty comeback, Abigail feeds constantly on attention, sex and food, growing plump and slick, and popular with husbands all across their small Rhode Island town. As Dorcas describes them in their girlhood:

‘When I was twelve, and An American Tragedy was my favorite summer book, my sister thrilled to Forever Amber, especially the scene where Amber, trying to rekindle the passion of Bruce Carleton, her first rapist, appears at the King’s Ball in a beaded gown that makes her breasts stand out “like full pointed globes.” I had to call Abigail “Amber” all that summer. She had been “Scarlett” the previous spring. Already Abigail was coming down in the world.’

The novel opens with Dorcas holed up in her library as a hurricane bears down on Rhode Island. With no way to avoid it, she sits down to read her sister’s recently published autobiographical memoir, about how she killed her husband. Abigail is currently in a women’s penitentiary, awaiting her trial.

The novel proceeds within this frame – Dorcas reminisces back through the sisters’ shared history as she disgustedly reads her sister’s memoir. The memoir is co-written by Hilda DeVilbiss, who Abigail met on her postal route years ago. Hilda is married to Guy, a whiny, infantile, self-aggrandizing intellectual, the satisfaction of whose various needs is Hilda’s mission in life. When Guy demands he meet Abigail, the sisters become unenthusiastic friends of the couple, who soon introduce them to Conrad Lowe, Guy’s college roommate. Conrad is a type-perfect misogynist, sadistic and manipulative – in the same way that Dorcas is all intellect and Abigail is all appetite, Conrad is also more type than individual. He seizes on Dorcas as a contradiction in terms, the world’s only “honorable woman,” and marries Abigail in order to better fuck with the sisters. Dorcas tries to stay close to her sister and shield her somewhat from Conrad’s abuse, without becoming involved with him on any level. This proves an impossibility, of course, and the three are drawn into endless warfare that ends in Abigail’s imprisonment.

Through exaggerating and focusing on each of her character’s primary motivations, Willett perfectly elucidates the conflict between men and women, and women and women. The Mather sisters seem to me to be two aspects of the same person – I don’t think I’m reading too much into the novel to say that they represent the liberated woman’s struggle to satisfy her romantic and sexual needs without compromising her dignity and autonomy. As Dorcas explains to Conrad:

“Abigail and I divided up the world. Sacred and profane. Spiritual and physical. Mind and body.”

Abigail is pure id: immediately upon entering puberty, she revels in being gang raped. When she meets Conrad, she is nearly 200 pounds, an enthusiastic eater who has never dieted. She is naked, unexamined need, unembarrassed, never shy. While Abigail has slept with nearly every man in town, she has never been in love with any of them personally; of course, she falls hard for Conrad, and, to Dorcas’s horror, becomes meek and compliant in the face of his abuse. The scene in which Abigail pines for Conrad, who meanwhile calls Dorcas up for a date, seems to me to be symbolic of a woman wrestling with her own irrational desire: Abigail keens on the sofa like a dog in heat, while Dorcas panics at her sister’s brute, out of control need. She slaps Abigail across the face and douses her with a giant pot of cold water. At Abigail’s begging insistence, Dorcas agrees to have dinner with the hateful Conrad. At dinner, she tells him he’s a bad person, and is to stay away from them, but when she wakes in the morning, he is in Abigail’s bed.

Conrad seizes on Abigail’s weight as her Achilles’ heel, and Abigail develops anorexia and dwindles down to nothing. Meanwhile, Conrad works on Dorcas by manipulating her into frequent bouts of heavy drinking with him, flattering her intelligence and uniqueness. Dorcas is unwillingly susceptible to suggestions that she is mythically superior; this is her weak spot.

Perhaps I am reading too much in, however, when I say they also seem to personify the two factions of feminism currently holding each other in uneasy alliance. Dorcas and Abigail love, but do not really like one another. Dorcas says of her sister:

I know Abigail better than anyone else in the world, and if I were asked to explain this or that particular thing, I could probably give a fairly accurate account of her motivations. I can report that duty has never played an even minor part in her decisions; that she is moved solely by the desire for pleasure and the avoidance of pain; that she derives pleasure from an astonishing variety of sources, and pain from astonishingly few; and so on. I can even predict her behavior, with a respectable success rate.

But I don’t understand her at all. To understand you have to do more than predict and explain. You must feel some degree of empathy. I have a greater understanding of cats and internal combustion engines and Iranians than I do of my twin sister, Abigail.

Both sisters are powerful, but Abigail’s power stems from fully embracing her sexual role, and Dorcas’s from rejecting it outright. While Dorcas is disgusted by Abigail’s appetites (Dorcas: “My sister has great power, but no dignity.”), she respects her sister’s ferocity and is shocked when Abigail becomes a doormat at Conrad’s hand. The indignity of sex having always been insupportable to Dorcas, she is now witnessing the greater humiliation of love, which is entirely beyond her. Dorcas cannot bear to be treated like a thing, as if she would be of some practical use to another person. When Conrad Lowe admires her legs, she says of the experience:

To be judged desirable, to have any part of my body found desirable, was insupportable to me. Somehow he had known immediately what course of action would be the most vicious. . . . I saw myself for the first time as a thing, a thing in someone else’s mind. Of course I had always acknowledged my body, the fact of my visibility, but I had not been a thing really, because I had been of no use. . . . “

Abigail, on the other hand, prefers at all times to be treated as a thing, to be seen as a practical means to an end, but she takes deep offense at being treated like an idea, romanticized or mythologized, turned into something theoretical that she is not. Dorcas tries to help Abigail figure out why Hilda’s initial introduction of her to Guy had offended her so:

Dorcas: “Because…you were being treated like a thing.”

“I like being treated like a thing.”

“Nothing degrades you, does it?”

“Yes! She degraded me . . . She treated me like an idea! That’s it. She treated me like an idea. Can you imagine the nerve?”

Guy serves as foil to Conrad Lowe; Guy’s demonstrative feminism is a thin cover for his inability to look directly at any woman. Whereas Conrad sees women primarily as disgusting and inferior bodies (a former gynecologist, he says of his former career: “Women fall apart like they’re made in Taiwan. The whole female works is a model for planned obsolescence. They get lumps, rashes, discharges, gross smells. They bleed. Or they don’t bleed. Whichever, they worry about it. Their insides fall out, like the udder on a cow.”), Guy (an artist, who mostly sculpts his wife’s vagina in endless series) sees only his own imaginings:

I had never known Guy to remark on any woman’s physical aspect. With Guy there was always the pretense that we were pure spirit, pure intellect and “sexuality,” and our bodies were incidental, negligible, beside the point.

Conrad uses this gap in his friend’s understanding to humiliate him in company:

They would talk about women, about oneself, as though women were nothing but ambulatory body parts, the container of the thing contained, the part for the whole. They would tell repugnant jokes with horrid imagery, comparing us to carnivorous plants, dead carp, snails. At such times Conrad Lowe would eventually extract from Guy some explicit hateful remark, some punchline of his own, and then he would abandon Guy, slip out form under him like a retracted gangplank. Lowe’s face would transmogrify, the contagiously filthy-minded young man would disappear, and in its place would be this bemused adult with an ironic face, staring at his old chum in mild wonder. And there would be poor Guy, the focus of shocked attention, and the echo of his own obscenity ringing in everyone’s ears like cookware spilling from a closet.

Conrad Lowe is pure hate, a patriarchal symbol referred to repeatedly as “the dominant male.” He is determined to drive a wedge between the sisters, to destroy them both and bend them to his will. Dorcas describes him on first meeting him:

The man was obviously a sadist, a manipulator. I despised him instantly. He inspired in me an absurd crusading zeal.

It was the oddest, most unhinging thing. I hated him, gladly. It was as though I had waited all my life to do battle with this terrible man, and the unhinging aspect of my emotion was the gratitude, the bridal joy.

At first, it seems clear that Abigail is the more vulnerable of the two, but in the end, Dorcas proves no less susceptible to Conrad’s hatred. Perhaps more nefarious (and realistic) than his overt abusiveness is Conrad’s ability to thoroughly occupy nearly all of both sisters’ time and attention over years. Dorcas speaks of her peace of mind and serenity whenever she is briefly apart from Abigail and Conrad; toward the novel’s end, the couple manages to pressure her into actually moving into their house, and while Dorcas tries repeatedly to distance herself and reclaim her own life, she is inevitably drawn back in. She can’t even take a day trip to a park without them inviting themselves along, and when she tries to hike of by herself for a minute, and they follow her, she screams:

‘”What are you people? Twelve? Five? Stupid? . . . Leave me alone! For pity’s sake!”‘

Oh, lest I forget to mention: Winner of the National Book Award is really funny. Hilarious, in fact, and much more broad and subtle than my chosen excerpts make it seem (the few reviews of the book I’ve been able to find do not even mention the themes I’ve focused on here). It’s also an ugly book, really, but it’s an ugliness nobody ever nails with total accuracy. There are two possibilities here: either I am reading way too much into this novel, and it is simply a very clever and entertaining satire, or I am correct in suspecting that Willett has done something brilliant and subversive here. Either way, I’m quite sure Willett at least knows exactly what she is doing.


  1. This is the most lively and thouightful review of the book I’ve ever read. Although a lot of what you’ve noted here was deliberate on my part, until now I never noticed that one twin hated being viewed as a thing and the other bridled at the idea of being viewed as an idea. That was just a happy accident.

    I’m not sure, then, that I knew what I was doing–except that if you’re true to your characters (however hyperbolic) and don’t get sidetracked by cliches, you’re likely to end up with something that makes sense on a number of levels.

    Re reviews–a got a bunch of nice ones, but by now I’ve done some reviewing myself, and I know how constraining that activity can be. In a blog you’re much, much freer to analyze, to dig deep (which is why I look at blogs). Reviewers these days are part of the marketing process. I understand there was a time when this was not so.



    1. Elizabeth says:

      Thank you so much for your comment.

      How interesting to hear that you didn’t intend the thing/idea parallel. There are actually several more examples of it besides those quotes I pulled – it’s so much fun how these things work their way in without a writer’s conscious intent!

      I absolutely loved your book, and am so glad you like my review!



      1. Elizabeth,

        I did intend some parallels/contrasts–just not all of them. To me, the best writing happens when your conscious intent is somehow distracted (you’re trying to make a character do something, etc.) and your subconscious takes the opportunity to breathe the air and work some mischief. I’m guessing that most writers feel that way, but I’m not sure.

        Why do you suppose it is that the best blogger-critics are more astute, thoughtful, and curious than most paid reviewers? Of course, there’s a lot of amateurish stuff in blogs, but the worst of it isn’t as dispiriting to me as most paid reviews, and I’m talking about reviews of books I’ve read (not my own). I have no axe to grind here–I’m grateful for the chance to review from time to time, for the money and the getting-your-name-out there thing, but honestly, when you look at old reviews–think Edmund Wilson–and what goes on now, it’s depressing.

        Keep up the good work!


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