This review originally appeared in Modern Painters magazine.
Alix Kates Shulman’s coming-of-age novel about a Midwestern girl in the late 50s and early 60s who finds life, love, divorce, abortion, and love again, was a sensation even before it was published in 1972. (It was a good year for sensations—1972 also saw the debut of Ms. magazine, the release of “Deep Throat,” and the publication of both The Joy of Sex and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.) Portions of it had appeared in the pioneering feminist journal Aphra, and, she notes in her preface to this, the reissued edition, copies of the galleys were passed around New York by young women in publishing circles, contributing to the bidding war that ensued. In the end, Memoirs set a record for paperback rights to a first novel
The book went on to become a best-seller, with millions of copies being read as the second wave of American feminism came into its own. Contemporary reviews heralded the exploits of beautiful Sasha, who grows up in Baybury Heights, Ohio, chafing against the constraints of society’s plan for her, and determined to both excel at it (by being the prettiest girl in school), and to escape it (by sleeping around and going to college), as “the first feminist novel.” The Village Voice went so far as to say that Shulman, by providing Sasha with a 1960s checklist of graduate school, love, sex, divorce, dashed career hopes, an abortion and more, “has incorporated all of the points of the Women’s Liberation movement and given them rare fictional life.” This reprint edition, part of Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s Feminist Classics Series, places it alongside such landmark texts as The Female Eunuch and The Dialectic of Sex.
Why then, is it such an unappealing read today? Sasha’s preoccupation with her looks; her compulsive, albeit ambivalent, seduction of every man she meets; her competitive analyses of rivals; her scheming to sleep with another woman’s husband—all appear to the contemporary reader as less like a feminist heroine and more like the socialites of “Sex and the City”. While suffering a few genuine setbacks and tragedies along the way, Sasha’s privileged world is more aspirational than pitiful—a poor little rich girl. She steals her sorority sister’s boyfriend, is crowned prom queen, is an intellectual star in college, attends graduate school in New York City, has torrid affairs, and achieves the kind of lifestyle that allows the opening sentence to read, “As the Orient Express lumbered into the subfreezing Munich Hauptbahnhof…” Throughout she appears to be a free agent, paranoidly craven to societal norms, yet willing to break them when it serves her purpose.
Part of the book’s problem is Shulman’s flat narrative voice. The brief, dispassionate descriptions of a date rape and an amateur abortion, while unsettling, feel out of place in the heroine’s otherwise glamorous, emotionless life. We get Sasha’s lengthy monologues about her beauty and its effect on those around her rather than any hint of why she stays in a loveless marriage even as her best friend embarks on life as a single mother. Shulman states in the introduction to this edition that she intended the book to be “a sardonic portrayal of one white, middle-class Midwestern girl’s coming-of-age,” and her decision to make the novel descriptive, rather than theoretical or prescriptive, may be the reason it was able to reach so many at the time of its release, and also why it feels so unremarkable now. Perhaps feminism’s reach has rendered its own literature obsolete.
And yet, we cannot wash our hands of Sasha and thank feminism for saving her. Contemporary young American women, while certainly enjoying more opportunities and freedoms than the Sashas of the 1950s, still operate with the pressure to be pretty, to conform, to find a man. If Sasha reads as pathetic, whiny, and manipulative, and we are meant to conclude that she is salvageable by the sense of self that feminism so radically extends to women—then perhaps Memoirs is all the more necessary now, as today’s “liberated” young women continue to confront glass ceilings, sexual assault, and right wing politicians bent on taking away their civil rights. Today’s prom queens need feminism too.