A Short History of Women: Book summary and reviews of A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert

A Short History of Women

A Novel

By Kate Walbert

A Short History of Women

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About this book

Book Summary

National Book Award finalist Kate Walbert's A Short History of Women is a profoundly moving portrayal of the complicated legacies of mothers and daughters, chronicling five generations of women from the close of the nineteenth century through the early years of the twenty-first.

The novel opens in England in 1914 at the deathbed of Dorothy Townsend, a suffragette who starves herself for the cause. Her choice echoes in the stories of her descendants interwoven throughout: a brilliant daughter who tries to escape the burden of her mother's infamy by immigrating to America just after World War I to begin a career in science; a niece who chooses a conventional path—marriage, children, suburban domesticity—only to find herself disillusioned with her husband of fifty years and engaged in heartbreaking and futile antiwar protests; a great-granddaughter who wryly articulates the free-floating anxiety of the times while getting drunk on a children's playdate in post-9/11 Manhattan. In a kaleidoscope of voices and with a richness of imagery, emotion, and wit, Walbert portrays the ways in which successive generations of women have responded to what the Victorians called 'The Woman Question.'

As she did in her critically acclaimed The Gardens of Kyoto and Our Kind, Walbert induces “a state in which the past seems to hang effortlessly amid the present” (The New York Times). A Short History of Women is her most ambitious novel, a thought-provoking and vividly original narrative that crisscrosses a century to reflect the tides of time and the ways in which the lives of our great-grandmothers resonate in our own.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Starred Review. Walbert's look at the 20th century and the Townsend family is perfectly calibrated, intricately structured and gripping from page one." - Publishers Weekly

"Starred Review. With a sharp eye and deft touch, Walbert explores the ways women's priorities and freedoms have evolved even as their yearnings have stayed remarkably constant." - Booklist

"It's gripping, intense, and powerful. Walbert's language is elegant, her images resonant. ... Highly recommended for all contemporary fiction collections." - Library Journal

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Reader Reviews

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Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Lori J. (Nutter Fort, WV)
Slow but enjoyable
Not a page turner, but worth the effort. It was rich in detail that I am certain I did not fully absorb. I will save it for a while and read it again to put all of the pieces together.

Rated 3 of 5 of 5 by Laura L. (Providence, RI)
A short history of women
This book was hard to follow at times, but I enjoyed the themes she wrote about. The author was able to show how our family of origin subtly influences who we are today, even if we know little about our ancestors. This was done well as she often went back and forth in history to get this point across. I also enjoyed the overall theme of women's place in the world and if it really has changed since the 19th century. Because of the difficulty I had following characters I do not know If I would have finished this book if I had not received a review copy, the difficulty might have outweighed the good themes.

Rated 1 of 5 of 5 by Shelly B. (Staten Island, NY)
A Short History of Women
I had high hopes for this novel. The story is the kind of book I love to read. I couldn't get past page 40. The writing style and the history lesson was boring and dry. The characters' internal dialog was confusing. I had a hard time following the different random thoughts of the characters.

The characters were stilted, underdeveloped, and did not come alive. I didn't care what happened to them.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Sue Ellen S. (CEDAR FALLS, IA)
A Great Choice for Book Clubs
I can't wait for my book club buddies to read this book! I predict that it will resonate with them and lead to meaningful discussion about what it means to be present in this world. What does it mean to matter? Will our daughters and granddaughters answer these questions as we do? At one point in the novel, a 77-year-old woman writes on her blog: "When I think about it, I think how long it takes to clear your throat, and by that I mean, to say anything true. ... I am trying to find MY VOICE. I am trying to SAY WHAT I MEAN. I am BEING PRESENT." Author Kate Walbert finds her voice and hits her stride in this excellent chronicle of five generations of women striving to be true to self—at times almost in spite of themselves.

Rated 3 of 5 of 5 by Susan S. (Lafayette, CA)
Disappointing
This book has a great opening phrase - "Mum starved herself for suffrage" are the first five words - giving me high hopes for the book, but it did not fulfill them. Overall, I found it slow and hard to finish. I did not mind the structure, which jumps around in time among several different generations of the same family, but I never could see any point to the various sections as interconnected pieces. Individual sections are entertaining, and the author writes well, with kind of clean, spare prose that I usually really like, but unfortunately there was nothing compelling about the build-up of sections as I moved from one to the next. I just could not see what it all added up to.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Robert F. (Charleston, IL)
Challenging and rewarding
A Short History of Women begins with this sentence: “Mum starved herself for suffrage, Grandmother claiming it was just like Mum to take a cause too far.” Mum is Dorothy Trevor, and the narrator is her daughter. From this intriguing starting point, the novel cycles back and forth through four generations of Dorothy Trevor’s descendants in England and America, focusing on the women and their sons. At first I found this structure challenging, mainly because the shifts are not chronological and jump ahead from 1914 to 2003, then back to 1898 and later to 2007. But eventually the connections begin to take hold, and the echoes and parallels among the generations create a rich pattern of reform, rebellion, and reaction to the history and politics of the times—from World War I to the invasion of Iraq and beyond.

The style is also challenging at first. Some of the first-person sections are like a stream of consciousness; we’re taken inside the narrator’s head, following her train of thoughts and emotions. But, again, I grew accustomed to the style. Reading this novel is something like breaking a code. Putting the pieces together is rewarding and enlightening. And the women are complicated, varied, and always interesting.

...10 more reader reviews

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Author Information

Kate Walbert Author Biography

© Deborah Donenfeld

Kate Walbert is the author of the award-winning books Our Kind, The Gardens of Kyoto, Where She Went, and A Short History of Women. Her plays include Year of the Woman, Quiet, She Said and Elsewhere. She lives in New York City with her husband and daughters.

From the author's website

Author Interview
Link to Kate Walbert's Website

Other books by Kate Walbert at BookBrowse
  • The Gardens of Kyoto jacket
  • Our Kind jacket
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