“One is not born a woman, one becomes one.”
Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex
Readers who enjoy stories about groups of women who survive the change of family, love and culture because of their precious friendships will enjoy The Future Homemakers of America, and what undoubtedly will be the follow-up film effort. Those who loathe that kind of literature, including anything that can be defined as an Oprah Book or the basis of a chick flick, will love to hate the novel. But despite their best efforts, they’ll find themselves enjoying it as well.
Laurie Graham’s story is familiar to those acquainted with the genre, and the book even goes so far as to include a special reading group guide. In 1952, five American Air Force wives are thrown together in Norfolk, England, while their husbands protect the continent. Even though the characters are virtually interchangeable at the beginning of the story, there is, predictably, a mouthy one, a sad one, an old-fashioned one, etc. Over the subsequent decades, as they keep in touch, they have their fights, their laughter, and their sadness — and in the end, they have each other.
This is an old and well-worn path. Many times, we hear phrases such as “At least we had each other,” and “Years later, I realized that day was the last time ever we were together, all six of us.” In a Like Water for Chocolate rip-off, Graham even includes recipes with folksy advice, such as “You better scrub your fingers real good afterwards. You get chili juice on your privates, you’ll be sorry” for Vern Dewey’s Real Mean Barbeque Sauce.
As clichéd as the plot may be, however, Graham’s story is still engaging and fascinating. Her narrator, straight-talking Peggy Dewey, tells the tale in self-propelling short chapter bursts, almost as if she were recording it in a journal and not to a wide-eyed audience. Similarly, her storytelling style is linear and straightforward, real-seeming and lacking many of the contrivances used in such stories, such as giving too much background information on unimportant characters. As in real life, some characters go away and don’t come back. Some friends lose touch and, believe it or not, do not all reunite for a grand conclusion. Some children are horrible, hopeless messes and there is no teary reconciliation. Some people make bad, bad mistakes and nothing can be done to fix them.
That isn’t to say that Graham’s magnetic storytelling completely redeems the book from its fluffiness. The title, for instance, is a reference to one particular character, Betty Gillis; if this were “Sex and the City,” she would be Charlotte. Crowned the “Pie Crust Queen,” and forever catering to her family and guests, Betty is the perpetual butt, meant to serve as an obvious lesson in feminism, even suggesting that subservient wives who are abused by their husbands bring it upon themselves by their own weakness. The identity-less and independence-free Stepford wife is a very familiar character. Graham herself seems torn about Betty, as she gives her stereotypical abused wife lines such as “He can’t help it? It’s just the way he is,” while at the same time sharing the un-PC but salvaging opinion that perhaps she is happy being a homemaker, and that’s all right.
The author, an Englishwoman married to an American, has a unique perspective to bring to the story. When she uses vernacular and poor grammar, or even details a baseball game, the reader may wonder if she is trying to prove her mettle as a believable American woman, or simply revealing her own clash of cultures. As her five American characters share their opinions on England — as well as on an English woman they befriend — and make remarks such as, “When I seen how those poor English lived, it made me want to get down on my knees and give thanks for being born in God’s own country,” it’s difficult to tell whether Graham is making a point about American hubris or simply trying to be truthful and realistic.
Graham makes a valiant effort to tie together the lives of mid-20th century American Southern women between the bookends of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation and Diana’s wedding. It is difficult to determine how successful she actually is, but it does make for an interesting blend. She has a skill of setting up unique settings and plot structures without making them seem too contrived or out of place, sometimes letting a story line develop at such a slow burn that the reader almost forgets about it until it pops back up as a pleasant surprise. In spite of the frequently annoying female bonding song-and-dance, the novel manages to skip along pleasantly and quickly.
If Graham had dared to move beyond the “we girls” relationship clichés, she would have had a knockout novel on her hands. As it is, the good points perhaps shine brighter than they might have, as the book details, almost in direct proportion, “Picking things outta the Sears catalog and clipping recipes for tuna bake and generally raising hell.”