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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  • Published in USA  Jun 2009
    256 pages
    Genre: Novels

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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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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.

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.

Kristina K. (Glendale, CA)

A History of All Women
I’ve read two of Kate Walbert’s previous works, "Where She Went" and "Our Kind," and loved both. Walbert is a master at weaving together separate strands of history and multiple characters’ story lines, often featuring the stories of women, into one poignant narrative written with lyrical prose. "A Short History of Women" is no exception. Here, Walbert weaves together a multi-generational history of the Townsend women from the British suffragette at the turn of the last century to her great, great granddaughter in 2007 New Haven, Connecticut. At first, Walbert’s style of bouncing back and forth between various time periods felt confusing, particularly since several of the characters share similar names (there are three Dorothys). The family tree she includes at the beginning of the book is very helpful. In spite of that, I found myself getting caught up in each character’s story and enjoying the way their histories all overlapped and circled back on each other. And while the novel features a specific history of the Townsend women, I feel that Walbert has written a history of all women who have struggled with powerlessness and the need for a meaningful life, revealing what I believe is an intentional irony in the title that suggests that such a history could ever be considered “short.”
   
As a side bar, Walbert’s inclusion of historical references to real women’s history, including the suffragette movement, Florence Nightingale, and Dora Maar, has made me interested in investigating these stories in greater detail.
   
I recommend this book highly as a personal read and as a selection for book groups. I will be recommending it to my own book group.

Portia A. (Mount Laurel, NJ)

A book for every woman
I enjoyed this book very much. I am a 77 year old woman who has lived through much of the time period of the women in the story. I found the characters very real and I found myself caring for them, and I think, understanding what they were trying to say. They were not perfect people but who of us are?

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.

Robin F. (tucson, az)

A short history of women
If you have a curiosity about the early days of women's struggles to independence, this book answers some of those questions. Initially, it was difficult for me to keep the characters straight and I did have to go back and reread sections. However, I enjoyed reading this book and would recommend it as a bookclub selection.

...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.

Walbert was born in New York City but raised in Georgia, Texas, Japan, and Pennsylvania. After graduating from Choate Rosemary Hall, she attended Northwestern University's School of Communication before earning a Master's degree in English from NYU.

Walbert was a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a Connecticut Commission on the Arts Fellowship. From 2011-2012, she was a Fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Writers and Scholars at the NY Public Library. Her latest novel is The Sunken Cathedral (2015). She lives in New York City with her ...

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