Like Danielle, I had mixed feelings about Molly Gloss’s novel Wild Life. To begin with the positive, there were times in this book where I felt thoroughly engaged. It’s in part an adventure story, and the main character, Charlotte, does have some great adventures. The novel takes place in the west, somewhere around the Washington/Oregon border, in the early 20th century. It’s logging territory, and a pretty wild, uncertain place. Charlotte lives with her five children, trying to carve out a writing career. Her husband is not in the picture, but she has a woman who acts as nanny, which allows her to sneak off now and then to get some writing done. The adventure begins when the nanny’s granddaughter disappears in the woods. When search parties fail to find her, Charlotte decides she needs to go search for her herself. She takes off into the wilderness and soon enough gets lost herself. These passages were exciting. I could imagine all too well what Charlotte was experiencing as she struggled to find her way back to civilization.
The book has fantasy elements to it, but they don’t become part of the story until Charlotte gets lost: while wandering around the woods nearly starved to death, she comes across a group of large human-like creatures, frightening-looking but kind animals, who slowly adopt her into their community. The creatures’ lives are endangered by the encroachments of logging; they need space in which to wander and forage for food, but that space is quickly disappearing.
All this works pretty well, although the fantasy element comes too late in the book to feel natural and properly-integrated. The book’s structure is odd in one way — the pacing is wildly uneven — but quite interesting in another: it is a mix of several genres. The main story is told through Charlotte’s diary, but interspersed throughout are fragments of her fiction, stories that are sometimes based on her own life and so rework the material in the diary, and also Charlotte’s essay-like ponderings on what it means to be a woman writer. These materials reinforce each other by exploring themes and ideas from different perspectives, so we can see Charlotte’s life told through her diary and also transformed into fiction.
What bothered me, and I couldn’t shake the feeling although I’m not sure how fair this is, was that Charlotte felt unrealistic, too much of a fantasy figure. For her to be able to write as much as she does without a husband and with five sons seems improbable, even given the nanny. But even more so, her feminism seemed fashioned purposely to please 21st-century audiences rather than to capture a truth about the time period. I know that feminism at the turn of the last century was well-developed and that people were making arguments about women’s writing similar to Charlotte’s, but Charlotte seems just too perfect. She defies stereotypes about women at every turn, in the way she dresses and acts, in her conversation, in the way she treats men, in her writing. I am all for strong female characters who defy gender stereotypes, but I don’t want to be jerked out of the world of the story by the feeling that I’m being presented with an argument rather than a character.
All in all, it’s a pretty odd book, although not entirely in a bad way. The book’s various elements — the wild west, the fantasy, the feminism, the theorizing about gender and writing, the experimenting with structure — don’t quite cohere, but it’s interesting in parts, and it’s fun when the story finally hooks you and you absolutely have to know how Charlotte is going to make it out of the woods.
6 responses to “Wild Life”
“an argument rather than a character”: well put. I will have to keep reading, as I don’t yet know how she gets out of the woods! I admit, the prospect of her settling in with Bigfoot was a bit much for me…but the more I read of other people’s posts, the more I feel ready to at least finish it up.
I didn’t think of Charlotte being an argument but I certainly felt her as tedious a lot of the time. I considered her as someone who went way overboard in trying to make a point, trying to prove that women were more than mothers and cooks and housekeepers. It was as though she cut off her nose to spite her face as the saying the goes. Like you though, I did find the pacing to be a problem.
I am so sorry I never even got near this month’s choice for the Slaves – I completely overbooked November and forgot about this one. It sounds like a very intriguing read, and I do like that mixed-materials approach where you have essays and realism and fantasy and letters all bundled in together. I do like a bit of historical accuracy, though, so a proto-21st century feminist in a 19th century setting might be a bit much!
I’m not sure how I’d react either–I tend to dislike too much retrojection though it’s the fashion now.
A friend who loved the book sent it to me a couple of years ago. Like you, I had mixed reactions. It is a strange book, and I think your last paragraph sums it up beautifully.
l liked it in a mixed way, too, but the plotting really was off. It took too long to get to the more fantastical element of the story even though she had been working up to it. I did like Charlotte though she could be a little maddening, too. It was an interesting read and I might still try something else by her as I do like the setting!