About a third of the way into Fast Women by Jennifer Crusie, I had to fold back and check the publication date. I was pretty sure this had to have been penned in the 80s, given the attitudes and assumptions of most of the cast. Nope! 2004. I’m not saying this is retrograde or backward or anything, just that it feels like a period piece of women of a certain class from my mother’s generation, and, in fact, it might make more sense if it had been set earlier than the late-90s. But, then, I’m not really a member of the socioeconomic milieu presented her, so maybe it’s entirely on the nose. I do totally know these women though, or I knew them 20 years ago.
Nell is a year past her divorce when she gets a job at a detective agency. She’s mid-40s with a grown son, and pretty mopey and gutted from the divorce. There are a lot of very broad hat tips to Noir plotting and tropes, in a way that was very goofy and fun, played for comedy instead of machismo. And probably explains some of the period piece feel of the novel; Crusie seems to be working out some things about the genre. Even the title is a misnomer, because these women are anything but fast, more a collection of stay at home moms, trophy wives and the tragic widows. I mean, who even uses the term secretary anymore? Even the broadest caricatures, like the girl who’s putting the blackmail to some assholes, is treated sympathetically – spoiler coming - even if she is ultimately fridged. But I get where Crusie is coming from, because I think the scene in Maltese Falcon where Sam Spade’s secretary rolls him a cigarette and then holds it out for him to lick the paper is damn near the sexiest thing I have ever seen, even though my late model feminist ass doesn’t…well, it just doesn’t.
If you think about it, a lot of the comedy from the Noir stuff in Fast Womenis turned in a domestic direction, more about dogs and affairs than about money and international political whatever, which is an interesting shift, the kind of thing I think women’s fiction can be attuned to. And, in fact, the murder plot was the least satisfying, feeling almost incongruous with the tone of the thing. But given all the sublimated feminine rage and violence – there is a fair amount of kitchen and office smashing & burning – I don’t think it’s ultimately out of place here, even if it’s kinda badly plotted. I am not a slick mystery reader, and I saw many things coming miles away.
And, speaking of money, money what may be the weirdest part of this book, for this reader anyway. I’m going to refrain from telling divorce horror stories – you’re welcome – but I will just note that many women, especially of my mother’s generation, were deeply, personally, and financially fucked by their divorces. I’m not saying that divorce doesn’t suck for men too or anything – it is a drag when love dies, and the basic economic unit in America gets busted up – just that, if you look at the statistics, women fare much worse after a divorce, and especially if they have children. So this coterie of ladies who are swanning around post-divorce with no nevermind of money issues felt weird.
Or, that’s not really accurate – there is some nevermind – just that the exact nevermind felt very specific to a certain demographic, one that assumes dudes provide, and then dudes do. (And not the demographic that assumes that because of the bible and Jesus, but just because that’s the way men and molls have always done it, if you catch my distinction.) Again, some of this is the working out of Noir tropes, but then how those tropes intersect with suburban upper middle class values. My eyes still goggled a bit when Jack gets all bitter and pissy when Suze gets a checking account. (???) Or, Budge was seriously paying the bills for Margie for the last seven years, even though they are not married. (???) Who are these people??? In 2004???
Still, though, even though they are aliens, they are in some ways familiar aliens to me. I enjoyed? is this the right word? the parts where the ladies talked about all their china in vivid, personal detail. I am not, nor have I ever been, a dish person, but I know these women. I have been served tea by these women in their stately St Paul manses, after coming in the back door, because that is how the working class is to enter such a home. I remember talking with Sarah and Atherton – these are not their real names – Sarah relating to me that she had married Atherton assuming he had old money, and he had assumed the same of her, and then, knot tied, it turned out that, whoops! they were both socially climbing on each other. But they sucked it up and, 60 years later, had clawed their way into St Paul society. Their bridge partners kinda hated Sarah and her feisty red hair and real estate. (God, Sarah was feisty. I really dug her.)
But most of these women are gone now, these wives of Mad Man with steel in their spines and hard appraising looks. Maybe these women are their daughters, insulated from ways the world changed by money and society. Maybe the hardcore society ladies are different from the more middle class version here, but there’s still that sense of the whole wealth displayed through domesticity thing, or maybe it’s power, or who even knows what it is. Which is part of the exploration going on in this novel, even if is occasionally silly and weird and not something that makes any sense for me personally.
I mean, I don’t require novels to be about people who look just like me, and it can be cool and fun to slip into narratives that are earnest in their examinations, even if that examination is a breezy, screwball comedy about sexual slash financial power dynamics and screwing your secretary. Sure, there’s probably lots of more literary examinations of these things, something with, like, elaborate plotting and tense deconstruction of Noir tropes, instead of comic inflection. And those would be fun, but they wouldn’t be fun in the way this book is, which is chatty girl-talk and goofing about sometimes serious matters. Nice.