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The Men's Room is a novel by sociologist and feminist, Ann Oakley. It tells the story of Charity Walton, a 32-year-old married mother to four children. Charity has a successful career in the sociology department of a university - "as a necessary change from domesticity, the other half of the successful woman image." One day the charismatic Professor Mark Carleton joins the department and he and Charity embark on a passionate affair. The woman who could be said to have everything she needs to make her happy - a husband, children, a career and a lover - finds her life spiralling out of control as the affair becomes increasingly obsessive and ultimately catastrophic. The novel charts the highs and lows of the relationship and Charity's struggles to reconcile her own unsettling compulsive desires with her developing feminist awareness. The book provides an insightful account of the potency of sexual feelings but also their transience - "the disappearance of passion into the weary mess of everyday life." An illicit relationship is thrilling because it is illicit. So what happens when you try to turn it into something conventional and respectable?
The fact that the novel is set in academia makes for an interesting exploration of the conflict between rational, intelligent thought and primal urges. In spite of her sharp mind and capacity for self-analysis, Charity quickly gets caught up in the thrall of her passion for Mark. Anyone who has ever found themselves gripped by obsessive love will relate to the insecurities and jealousies that she experiences. The novel certainly makes us think about how much in life we can actually control and how much is fated, or whether notions of fate are really just a cop out. As Charity observes - "there was absolutely no point in seeing herself as a free agent, because even if she were, her freedom and her pleasure were not the same thing at all."
Charity's personal battle to understand how her overpowering need for this man fits in with her feminist principles is a thought-provoking theme throughout the book. There are lots of sex scenes - not the sanitized, romanticised sex to be found in some novels but earthy, dirty, frankly erotic and very real sex. The often aggressive nature of the sex unnerves Charity, who has an innate aversion to male violence, yet it thrills her at the same time. We are told - "she was drawn to it but trapped by it." It is with some irony that Charity learns that turning your back on a marriage does not automatically free you from patriarchy. The very thing that seems to empower you can make you feel weak and powerless. Charity discovers that - "to be a feminist and still on the cutting edge of loving men requires a certain number of perpetual snowstorms." The complex tangled web of love, sex and need is explored and I certainly didn't finish this book feeling any wiser about what love actually means, other than to come to the view that it can mean different things to different people, but how love relates to commitment, honesty and freedom remained vague. I found this a rather depressing take on the human condition, but it struck a chord with me all the same.
The story begins in the 1980s in a climate when women's equality had made great strides but, ironically, Britain's first female prime minister came along and abolished state nursery provision, making life a lot harder for a great many working women. It was an era of contradictions. Women at last believed they could 'have it all' but some didn't want it all. Others who did want it all were to find out that there was no such thing as having it all. Charity's personal experiences mirror the mixed up state of society as a whole during the 1980s. I recall that in the 1980s there was a lot of confusion about what a feminist was and whilst most women believed that equality was a good thing, many, like Charity at the start of the book, found it hard to identify with "women in dungarees who said shit all the time and drank beer in pubs." But, as Charity's story shows, feminism can be a very individual journey that takes you beyond the clichés.
From a plot point of view this was not the most exciting book I had ever read. In some respects the on/off nature of the relationship gave it a tedious quality, but this is also what made it credible and this was the reason I found it quite fascinating. The main characters were not particularly likeable. Charity and Mark both come across as self-obsessed and hypocritical people. Unattractive though these traits were, they made the characters believable. After all, real people don't always do the right thing, even when they know perfectly well what the right thing is. Charity really annoyed me at times. At one point she brings her lover to the holiday home that she is sharing with her young daughter, which struck me as a bit inappropriate to say the least. On another occasion Charity screams at Mark - "stop behaving like a bloody man and start behaving like a human being!" She tars all men with the same brush rather than seeing people as individuals, which I found every bit as objectionable as Mark's feeble attempts to justify his philandering nature by thinking of his affairs as his "life blood." Because Charity and Mark are as selfish as each other, I found myself asking the question, who is really being used here, if anyone?
The writing style takes a bit of getting used to. It reads like a feminist polemic in places. The quotations from Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex at the start of each chapter contribute to the rather academic style and some of the dialogue sounds more like something you would hear at a debating society than over an intimate pasta meal in a restaurant. However, Oakley's use of descriptive language is poetic and rather beautiful. I love the way she evokes vivid pictures of the landscape, which reflect or contrast with her characters' states of mind. For example, as Charity sits on the beach in France, waiting for her lover to visit, she imagines her past, present and future intermingling - "as the water and light did now across the bay, lacing waves and sunbeams in a speckled pattern of fused and fragile energy."
I did enjoy reading The Men's Room. Although it is not exactly a barrel of laughs and isn't what I would describe as light reading, it is not without its moments of dry humour. In many ways this is a book that probably poses more questions than it answers, but if you like books that make you think deeply about things, you will appreciate this. It's not one of those books where it is easy to take sides or to see things in black and white, which might be frustrating to some people but it was what made it interesting to me. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the gender debate or indeed anyone who has ever known what it is to be in an emotionally exhausting relationship. If you like a novel with an intricate plot, it probably isn't for you, but if you're fascinated by human behaviour and human weakness, this will give you plenty to think about.