Book review: The Other Woman: Stories of Two Women and a Man
The Other Woman: Stories of Two Women and a Man. Edited by Susan Koppelman. The Feminist Press, 1984. 384 pages.
Susan Koppelman begins her introduction to The Other Woman with, “All the stories in this collection are about women — both wives and other women — who love adulterous men,” setting the tone by squarely placing the blame on the male of the species. The women, whether wives or lovers, are only victims of male power, detachment, and appetite. Almost pointedly, Koppelman presents the reader with no adulterous women — that is, married women who are the “other woman” to married women. In earlier times, this may not have been as common because of the financial dependence of women, but of course it is a theme in literature; it plays a role in novels such as Wuthering Heights and Tenant of Wildfell Hall, for example. It is not to Koppelman’s feminist point, however.
This leads to another limitation of this anthology; infidelity is restricted to men — and only American men. Forgoing the riches of world literature, which is replete with a diverse array of attitudes toward marriage and infidelity within various historical, social, cultural, and religious traditions, Koppelman limits her collection to the 19th and 20th centuries in the United States. The most exotic stories are: “The Quadroons” (Lydia Maria Child), in which marriage is a form of emotional slavery for the biracial wife; “Challah” (Martha Wolfenstein), set among urban Jewish immigrants; “A Captain Out of Etruria” (A. R. Leach), which tells of American expatriates in post-war Europe; “Gal Young Un” (Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings), which take place in cracker Florida; “Papago Wedding” (Mary Austin), which seems to try to capture an oral tradition; and “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” (James Tiptree, Jr. — real name: Alice Sheldon), a science fiction story more interesting for the veracity of its pop culture insights than for its sexual implications, although of course the two are linked. “The Last Rite” (Lee Yu-Hwa) is the only story set in a completely alien tradition — pre-communist China — and also the only one told, sympathetically, from the man’s viewpoint. The protagonist is torn between the old China and the new, between his family and his duty and his wife and his duty.
Despite the feminist cant, which selectively minimizes the culpability of the other woman (for example, in “The Difference” (Ellen Glasgow), the other woman is no more an innocent than the thoughtless, uncaring husband) and the narrow focus, The Other Woman is a solid collection that, if nothing else, and perhaps intentionally, often seems to solidify the concept of woman’s emotional and financial dependence on man. In “A Poet Though Married” (Helen Reimensnyder Martin), it is a man’s money that allows Miss De Ford to carry out her mission. In “The Difference,” as a friend observes when visiting Margaret in her lavish home, “For when George ceases to be desirable for sentimental reasons, he will still have his value as a good provider.” The best story, “Turned” (Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author of the brilliant “The Yellow Wall-Paper”), is the most truly feminist as well, as betrayed love is eschewed for independence and self-respect. Even the victim has “a new intelligence upon her face.”
Covering only 139 years of American literature written primarily by women (with the noted exception of Lee Yu-Hwa), The Other Woman misses greatness with its narrow focus. The true full story of the “other woman,” whether she is victim or vixen (which, despite Koppelman’s protestations, is possible) must be far more fascinating and far less predictable than what appears here. The Other Woman falls short of telling the complete, nuanced story of the other woman — or of anyone else.
Note: This edition is poorly printed, with many pages falling out and requiring multiple applications of glue. There are also numerous typographical errors.
28 August 2008
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
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