WHAT MARGE PIERCY has given us in her novel is a complete concordance to everything that might have happened to a "mongrel" girl (Piercy's term for her half- Jewish, half-Welsh heroine) growing up in lower-class Detroit and attending the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in the 1950s. The catalogue is so complete that, after almost 500 pages of Jill Stuart's young life, we feel we have successfully completed a sociology course with heavy emphasis upon the varieties of sexual experience. We learn volumes about the "anxious nonsense" of losing one's virginity, about dormitory life, birth-control, backseat-of-the-car sex, abortion, courtship rituals between men and women, frendships between women. No writer I know of has so thoroughly (exhaustively may be a more accurate word) explored the changing, despairing, frightening, and complicated world of a young college girl becoming a woman.
Before this novel my enthusiasm for Marge Piercy's fiction and poetry has been tepid. They both struck me as evidence of a genuine sensibility too heavily overlaid with political and feminist passion. I may have been the kind of reviewer she satirizes in this book, who writes about Jill's poetry as failing to transcend "morbid political bias." But Braided Lives contains many fine and funny things, together with the expected angry and forthright ones. It achieves honest and impressive power in the way that seldom happens in such overly furnished novels, works so decorated and elaborated that the lean bones of theme and character are often obscured.
Jill Stuart, the details of whose life are remarkably close to the author's, is bright, sensitive, and sensual. She begins her sexual Bildungsroman in her early adolescence with girls and never loses her affection for women. Her cousin and college roommate is the common denominator for all her loving, and later Jill has a brief encounter with her second roommate, Stephanie: "It is not a passionate kiss," Jill says, "simply inquiring."
Awkward, unconforming, rebellious and eager for experience, Jill then loves a series of men: Howie, Mike, Kemp and back to Howie. This picaresque progress is not promiscuity: Jill is inquiring into the nature of relationships, men, sex, and most of all herself.
"The core of falsity in the search for love: a woman gives herself to a man as if that got rid of the problem of making an identity, with a most personal god to reward, pardon or damn. No matter who holds me in his arms my eyes are brown, my teeth poor, my poems unwritten; I must conclude I am more honest alone. . . . Let love strike like lightning if it wants me. I have enough else to learn."
Jill's intellectual pursuits and creative life run parallel to her sexual searching, but they are submerged, as well they may be at her age, and never enter the story or affect the quality of the prose until the college years are over. Similarly her long-standing love-resentment-hate relations with her mother disappear at the end of the novel when she tells her she has learned to like her. Through her adolescence she has resembled most young girls.
"I want to say, Look I love you, but it comes to me that is the last thing I can say directly. It is not said in this house. The flimsy walls would crack with shame if I spoke it. We have channels between us for insult, channels for negotiation and innuendo, for push and pull, even for injury comfort after injury, but none for affection. I am a daughter who does not fit into the narrow slot marked Daughter."
Jill's girl friends have affairs of every description, and some of them marry. This allows for rich observations about the nature of that institution and its by-products. Because of the novel's time frame, politics, even sexual politics, do not matter to the heroine until later. When everyone else does, Jill becomes an activist of sorts, but her real social passions are involved in the victim-status of women in unwanted pregnancies. After the novel's most horrifying episode, Jill's infliction of a terrible abortion upon herself with the help of her mother, and following the death of her cousin from a similar act (Jill says, "The people . . . killed her with their law-armored hatred of women"), Jill becomes a one-woman hotline to assist women caught in unwanted pregnancy, and then a crusader for legal abortion.
If we are to believe the samples provided, Jill's poetry rings with passionate awareness of women's issues: victimization by men, by rape, by abortionists, by self-involved and using lovers. There are very few instances of gentle, giving, sharing male love for women in Braided Lives. Only at the last, in the projected future which Piercy adds to the present-tense narrative, do we see Jill take on what we assume will be a long-lasting and equal love.
This is a long summary of the contents, yet there is more, much more, almost too much, to my way of thinking, so that long stretches of the novel become as boring as ordinary life is, and the conversation between college students as repetitious and inane. I wanted all the talking to stop, I wished Piercy would censor her total recall, or that an editor would have used a critical scissors.
Nonetheless, the effect of this data bank of life history is cumulatively impressive. We have been there with Jill Stuart, it seems, almost as long as she has been, and moved with her from her early and very prosaic fascination with detail to the fuller evidence of her poetic gift. Near the end she and Howie plan to marry:
"We will be together; I have not since early childhood known the taste of certainty. He is promised to me like dawn and dusk. Those broad bones in his thighs and forehead, the mossy hair, the wintry eyes and stubborn mouth: he will not walk away."
Piercy's humor, hardly visible through most of these long pages, is most welcome when it is permitted to appear. We can forgive her self-indulgence about chapter headings ("Game Called on Account of Pain," "Any Storm in a Port," "Hot Pastrami on Wry," etc.) when we read the scene in which she meets Howie's parents, and then when he meets hers:
"Mother emerges in a purple frock festooned with sequins. As we march toward the dining room table three feet away, she pinches Howie's arm. Under the lopsided chandelier of four light bulbs we sit down to pan-roasted chicken. Relax, everyone! If I did, I would slide under the table. LOVE THY DINNER PARTNER, a neon sign flashes over my head in hearts-blood red and truelove blue. Howie is ensconsed on his dignity like a hard cushion. Mother tilts her head coquettishly, fluttering her lashes; then throws him dark musty glances of scorn and mistrust. Dad daydreams of fishing in an icy mountain stream a mile above our plates."
Here Piercy has found her passkey to the art of evocative fiction. We wonder why she did not choose to write the whole novel in this mode.