Guest Author - Lori Bradley
I like to read, for escape or inspiration. Perhaps, you find, like me, that it's hard to find compelling contemporary fiction that childfree-friendly. Many stories begin with an interesting main character, only to disappoint as the character devolves into an obsession with children or childbearing.
An example is a recently well-publicized book, which was recommended to me by several people saying; "Oh, it's a book about dogs and artists. You'll love it." The story starts with an interesting premise and an intriguing main character but quickly disintegrates as the character decides her life is not worth living because she thinks she might not be a good mother - because she has a bad temper! She decides to free her husband of living with someone who won't ever become a good mom. OK, three proposals are made by this author: 1) women with bad tempers are unfit mothers, 2) women who are not mothers don't have lives worth living, 3) spouses should "set their partners free" if they can't or don't want to have children.
I ended up tossing this book across the room. (Whoops! Guess I wouldn't have made a good mother!) I felt like giving it a good ritual burning. When an author starts out with interesting characters, seduces me into enjoying them, and then attacks the same characters - denying them autonomy - I get upset.
Now, when I crave escapist literature, I'm more careful in my search to find books that aren't antagonistic to the childfree lifestyle. I find I don't go wrong with British author P.D. James. If you enjoy mystery and suspense, she's written an extensive series of murder mysteries that are literary and intelligent. She never condescends to her audience or in the treatment of her characters.
Many of her protagonists are, in-fact, childfree. If not, they are autonomous, freestanding individuals. They don't sublimate interests, values, and relationships for kids. Every character is carefully crafted, detailed and complex, and stands strong throughout the plot. James always projects a true respect for her characters, even her villains. They are consistent and believable.
James's respect for her childfree characters is interesting, especially coming from the author of Children of Men (which spawned the movie of the same name.) Both book and film are dark dystopic visions of a future in which society loses its collective will to live when all men are inexplicably rendered infertile and children are no longer possible.
I find the author's mysteries much more compelling fiction. James' latest work, The Private Patient, doesn't disappoint. It has all her usual cast of frustrated academics, introspective, conflicted clergy, and erudite, poetic police officers.
The Private Patient is typical in its dramatic setting: a 16th century Tudor mansion set on the English moors,an atmosphere filled with "Dickensian gloom." It's delightfully replete with winding lime tree paths and some Neolithic stone formations on which to build suspense and drama.
The cast of characters is all drawn to this gloomy place for their own reasons, many revolving around the house itself. Ancestors and offspring play key roles in the plot, but the main adult characters are the focus - delightfully detailed, neurotic and introspective. Although the dark gothic setting implies that supernatural forces may come into play as the plot develops, thankfully, the fates of all the characters are entirely the result of their own personalities and desires.
A universally despised journalist contracts for a week of treatment at the mansion for a disfiguring scar. The mansion has been recently acquired by a master plastic surgeon and has been partially converted to a clinic for wealthy, private patients. The journalist is murdered early on (so, I'm not giving away the ending!) and the ensuing drama comes from an intense search for her killer among the mansion's milieu.
Of course, other tragedies occur. Incidents are seemingly unrelated until the mysteries of the past are unwoven by the intelligent, poetic Inspector Dalgliesh and his crew. As in most of James' mysteries, the action is slow-paced. The tension and suspense is built through a careful unraveling of each character's personality and past - an unusual approach to contemporary suspense writing, that's often overly action-based.
I find all James novels absorbing and refreshing for that deliberate, detailed attention paid to each character - the books are slow but never boring - quite the opposite, building tension through everyday human interactions, in the tradition of Agatha Christie.
P.D. James books are also great airplane companions. I have a ritual of always carrying one with me when I have to fly. The plots are absorbing enough to enable to me forget, for a few minutes, that I'm in a bucket of bolts miles above the ground, but never so tense that they add to my sense of anxiety.
James' earlier book, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, is also a great read with a wonderful female hero, Cordelia Gray. Again, James creates a distinct atmosphere that transports the reader to bucolic Oxford and an intriguing mystery. I loved the book, but when the BBC created a television series from the two novels with the Cordelia Gray character, they felt compelled to make her pregnant in the final segment. This ruined the BBC series for me. The pregnancy from barely-known partner was inconsistent with the character. I loved the book because it portrayed a strong woman completely immersed in her business life. James acknowledges that the BBC rendition ruins the character for her too, and she didn't continue the series after the second novel. Still, An Unsuitable Job for Woman is a great childfree read.