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Chick lit, chauvinism and modern Ireland

Whitethorn Woods by Maeve Binchy. Knopf, 2007. 352 pages.

Recently my sister asked me if I had met anyone, which is a coded inquiry for “anyone of interest in terms of dating.” I told her that my schedule and my other commitments made it difficult for me to meet women.

The conversation then turned to relations between men and women.

“Let’s face it,” I said. “Women are under enormous pressure for a long time, just like guys are growing up. They have children. Many work jobs. They try to stay young. Maybe all those demands drive them round the bend. Take the people in my church, for example. Most of the men over 40 look contented or tired, but most of the women look either ticked off or aggressive.” I paused, and added thoughtfully: “Maybe I should write an article. I could call it: ‘Are Women Over Forty Insane?’”

My sister, who is herself over 40, looked at me with that great compassion she generally reserves for fools.

“Well,” she said, “you’d certainly meet a lot of women if you wrote that article.”

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This is not that article. It’s a book review, of course. But I would like to bring up the concept of chauvinism.

Remember that word? Thirty years ago, we heard a lot about male chauvinism. Men were male chauvinist pigs. We had oppressed women since the dawn of history. We treated women as second-class citizens. Construction workers wolf-whistled at pretty women; bosses chased their secretaries at office parties. We talked in derogatory ways about women and treated them like objects instead of human beings.

Nowadays, of course, no one uses the word chauvinism much anymore. It’s an interesting word. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary defines it generally as “extreme or aggressive support for one’s own country or group.” The secondary definition reads, “a belief held by some men that men are superior to women.” Contending that the Oxford people had confused the general term with “male chauvinism,” I turned next to my Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary. Here, the secondary definition seemed more in line with the origin of the word: “an attitude of superiority toward members of the opposite sex.”

If we accept this definition as more credible, can we then make a case for female chauvinism? Are there female chauvinists? Does female chauvinism exist? Do women ever negatively consign men to a group, as in “All men are slobs” or “Men are so selfish”? Do women, who now comprise about 56 percent of our college population, ever brag about their superiority to men as men once did regarding women? Do we ever hear women talking about their husbands or lovers being dolts who can’t remember an anniversary or who shop late for Valentine’s Cards? Do we ever read novels in which most of the men are drunkards, sex molesters, cheaters in marriage, or fools at earning money?

We do if we read novels like Maeve Binchy’s Whitethorn Woods (Knopf, 2007). Set in Ireland, Whitethorn Woods tells the story of the town of Rossmore and St. Anne’s Well, an ancient shrine that has attracted a steady stream of pilgrims over the centuries. A new highway project has slated the Well for destruction, and Rossmore becomes torn between those citizens who want to keep this part of the town’s heritage and those who want the benefits the highway will bring. By telling the story through the town’s inhabitants, Binchy gives us a comprehensive and sometimes humorous look at the current Irish clash between tradition and change.

Though I am not a Maeve Binchy fan — long ago I did read Light A Penny Candle, but Binchy’s novels are definitely in the “chick-lit” genre. I began to notice about a third of the way into Whitethorn Woods that men were usually coming off second best to the women of the village. We meet Sharon, whose father is “a wino and a gambler.” We meet Maureen and Rivka, both of whom are deserted by early lovers and then enter into bad marriages. We meet a woman whose uncle molested her and several whose husbands seem barely to have the brains to pop open a bottle of Guinness. Binchy does give us some flawed women. There is, for instance, Becca, who has arranged to have her boyfriend’s new love murdered, and Becca’s mother Gabrielle, presented as equally stunted in her morals, but even in their accounts men are presented as weak. When Becca goes to prison, her boyfriend begins sleeping with Gabrielle.

And publishers wonder why so many men don’t read fiction these days.

Many of the situations in this book — an older physician slyly driving a young colleague from the community, a woman who invites randomly chosen guests to a party — are both humorous and touching. Binchy writes with delightful insight about the problems of modern Ireland, and it is a man, a noble and good man, who finally solves the problem of the well. As I say, however, I was distracted from the story by the author’s comments about men. I wondered how a book would play out if it contained male characters who constantly referred to their girlfriends as sluts, who felt henpecked by their wives, whose mothers and wives were so anal about the furniture that they left it covered in the plastic wrappings?

Plato once said that only the dead have seen the end of war. If nothing else, Whitethorn Woods convinces its readers that this adage is true as well of the war between the sexes.

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