Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Charlotte Wood's The weekend

It was a full house when Minervans met for the first time in 2020 to discuss our first book of the year, Charlotte Wood's The weekend. It seemed a fitting book for a group that has been meeting for over 30 years, several of whom have known each other for those 30 years and more.

The book is about three women (Jude, Wendy and Adele), now in their 70s, who have been friends for around 40 years and have come together for a weekend to clean out the house of the fourth friend (Sylvie) who had died about a year previously. During the weekend, various cracks in their friendship are revealed, but so is their love and loyalty.

First impressions

As usual, we started by asking everyone for their first impressions, which fell into two rather clear camps:

  • alright; ambivalent; characters are types; liked it at the start but then started to feel ho-hum about it; too long
  • loved it; it captured women's friendships well, particularly the agonies and ecstasies over long periods of time and the dynamics of friendship groups; enjoyed the humour

Interestingly, none of those who didn't like it mentioned the humour, while several of those who did like it specifically mentioned the humour! However, everyone did enjoy something about the evocation of friendships, with most people relating to the book personally in one way or another. For some it resonated closely with experiences they had had.

One of those who liked it didn't like the melodramatic "party" scene near the end. One who didn't like it commented that the death near the end of one woman's lover helped Wood create an ending for her book but didn't actually resolve anything.

Several commented on different aspects of the writing, such as the wonderful opening scene in which Wendy is in her broken-down car on the highway, the description of the inclinator, the wave metaphor at the end, and other descriptions and images.

The rest of the discussion

With 12 in attendance, the discussion then scampered all over the place, from idea to idea, point to point, but I'll try to bring it together. We discussed the role of Finn the ageing dog, who, we learnt, was not in the original story. Most of us liked Finn, but one member found it difficult to accept a dog who really should have been euthanised. The women's reactions to Finn tell us something about their characters. Also, Finn's simply "being"  (his "simple creatureliness") provides a foil for the women's ideas about life's meaning or goals, and his ageing body reflects, if not symbolises, the ageing bodies of the women (and their fear of ageing, not to mention death and dying.)

In a lesser way, the inclinator also works as a useful device for conveying information about the women's characters, from Adele's not using it because of her "use it or lose it" philosophy to overweight Wendy with the frail dog having no choice really.

We didn't talk as much about ageing as we might but one member was interested in the idea of when have you "finished". Wendy and Adele, for example, both feel they have more to achieve - Wendy, the intellectual idea she feels she's moving towards, and Adele, her big role - while Jude's goal seems to be finding things to talk about/share/offer up when her married lover (of forty years) sees her. When you no longer have formal, professional goals, what goals do you have, where do they come from, and what happens when you, perhaps, no longer have goals or purpose?

We also briefly discussed children - and the point when the power balance shifts from parents being parents of their children to being parented by their children! Wendy experiences this in the book.

Wood, we felt, is clearly up on the contemporary problem of homeless older women, as by the end, two of the three are, or potentially are, without a home.

Regarding friendships, we talked about how people can know each other for a long time but still not know each other (see Quote of the night below, perhaps!) One member pondered whether friends made when young (even those sustained over a long time) would in fact become friends if you met them much later. Another member commented how it was Adele, the one the others frequently saw as "the child" of the group, is the one who takes control when a major crisis comes. We felt that Wood had captured well the complexity of friendships, and the individual baggages that people bring to friendships.

A member commented that the women never reminisce about Sylvie, which you might expect. This resulted in a discussion about the women's self-absorption. One member felt they lacked warmth.

In terms of the writing, we talked about the alternating points of view as we moved between the women's heads, and the fact that book is more one of vignettes than a single narrative, which might explain why we don't hear the women sitting down and reminiscing about their late friend. One member wasn't convinced about the set-up, that is, the women coming together to clean out their friend's house when there was a partner who could have done it.

We also talked about the "house-party" genre of books/fiction, into which this fits. Some members immediately recalled the film The big chill and one referred to John Clanchy's novel The sisters.

We shared some favourite pieces of writing, such as:

this description of Wendy by Adele:

the planes of her mighty cheekbones and jaw had tilted somehow, inwards and down, so that to Adele it seemed she'd begun, impossibly but surely, to look really very much like Patrick White.

this by Jude on sister-in-law Catherine's reading group:

Catherine's bookclub worked doggedly through the Booker shortlist, coming down on the side of the winner if they knew the author already, against if they didn't.

and this by Wendy of young Australians, who

now spoke with American accents, pronouncing their r's at the end of words, and saying "afterr", the "a" like in apple. Why was this? The Western world had blurred itself into one jellied cultural mess. 
We talked about about Wood, the fact that she's in her 50s and has no children. We thought she had well captured women who are 20 years older than she, and that she must know and have observed carefully such women, their changing friendships, bodies and perceptions.

Finally, we felt the novel touched on rather a lot of "stuff". Some of us felt we identified with one or two of the three women, while others saw all three women in themselves at different times. At the end of the discussion, we all agreed that, whether we individually liked the book or not, it offered a good description of what happens between friends, and that therefore, in fact, it is a "good" book!

Quote of the night

One member reminded us of the saying that everyone has three lives - a public life, a private life, and a secret life - and suggested that this book is very much about the secret life.

Present: 12 members

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