My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Actual Rating: 3.5 rounded to 4 stars
Marge Piercy is one of those authors best encountered at exactly the right time of life and in the right frame of mind. I’ve read three of her other novels (Small Changes, Sex Wars: A Novel of Gilded Age New York, and Three Women) and found them to be, for the most part, what I expected: novels written by a politically active Second Wave feminist poet. For some reason, I really connected with Braided Lives, I think because the characters are close to my age range. This book is an obviously left-leaning political novel, but it’s also a lovingly crafted coming-of-age story with autobiographical elements, and that’s why I connected with it.
Jill Stuart, a non-religious Jewish girl raised in a working-class neighborhood in Detroit, narrates Braided Lives. The story follows her journey to college alongside her cousin Donna, through college courses, dormitory shenanigans, and relationships with men (and boys). Although it’s set in the 1950s, much of what Jill and Donna experience isn’t that far off from the modern day college experience. The situations each character encounters molds them into the women they become by the end of the story, and I think that’s a really accurate trajectory for most young women in college.
I really enjoyed Piercy’s poetic writing style in this. It’s a 500-page book, but it doesn’t seem like it; each bit of dialogue, each description, and each of Jill’s inner monologues are well-placed and poignant. There were several one-liners and longer passages that I want to cut out and hang on my wall as a reminder that I’m not the only one who’s felt this way or thought this certain thing about the world. What’s amazing to me is just how little has changed between the 50s and now. The women’s experiences with men remind me so much of my early relationships, particularly in college and directly after, in which I didn’t quite know how to articulate what I wanted and was easily swayed by overly confident men who were used to getting what they wanted.
With that being said, Braided Lives is a highly political novel, and its plot is shaped in certain ways by Piercy’s politics. Ultimately, this is a book about abortion pre-Roe v. Wade, about the dangers that having sex entailed for women and the lack of access to good birth control. Jill and Donna are both sexually active at a time when unmarried women were supposed to be virgins—despite the fact that unmarried men were presumed to be having sex. At one point, the girls buy themselves cheap wedding rings and fabricate husbands just to get fitted for a diaphragm. Keep in mind, this was before the pill was even invented, but that, too, was subject to a doctor’s discretion and it wasn’t easy to get a prescription if you were unmarried.
There’s a lot of discussion of mediocre sex, and a lot of Freudian opinions on how sex was supposed to be for women. Jill even admits to having same-sex attraction, but she hasn’t acted on it since she was a child; having lesbian tendencies would literally get you locked up in an insane asylum. Obviously Piercy (and Jill) disagree with these (now outdated) ideas about female sexuality, but Jill and Donna are still affected by these ideologies.
There’s even a self-induced abortion; I’m including this without a spoiler alert because it was an incredibly emotional reading experience and I wouldn’t have wanted to go into that blindly. Jill is involved in left-leaning politics on campus, and she later becomes involved in a sort of secret society that helped women access illegal abortions and aftercare. Piercy does not disguise her politics, but shows how for the characters the personal becomes political before that phrase was even coined.
I read another Goodreads review that said Braided Lives would’ve been way better if you stopped before reading the last 50 pages, and I have to agree with that. The first 500 pages of this book would’ve been 5-stars for me, to be quite honest, but the last 50 pages were more political than they were good storytelling. While I was somewhat disappointed that, for all her politics, Jill spends the entire book in and out of relationships with men, I completely related to that and found it realistic. What I couldn’t accept: (view spoiler)Essentially, while I had hearts as well as tears in my eyes for the majority of this reading, the politically charged and unfulfilling ending left me with a 3.5-star rating, rather than a 5.