Green Girl by Kate Zambreno is another in what appears to be a series, for me, of books that make me wonder about generational divides. When I reviewed this book on Goodreads, all I had to say was: I think I'm far too old to appreciate this book.
This novel is about Ruth, a young American woman living in London, working at a department store she refers to as Horrids, spritzing people with perfume after asking them if they've ever experienced Desire (the name of the scent). She wanders aimlessly from man to man, party to party, occasionally reflecting on HIM (yes, all caps), the man that got away, and she thinks about how people are watching her. She is, according to the narrator, one of many Green Girls, a phrase pulled from a line in Hamlet: "You speak like a green girl, unsifted in such perilous circumstance."
That's pretty much it, as far as I can tell.
The back of the book makes a comparison to Sylvia Plath's The Bell jar, and good little Plath-ite that I am, I have to take issue with that. Plath's Esther Greenwood was a young woman sinking deeper and deeper into mental illness, exacerbated by the times she lived in (the early 1950s). Esther was a bright young woman crushed by societal expectations and social mores, living in an era that urged her to simply find a good man and become the best wife and mother possible, and to not want anything more than that (which makes me wonder why even more women didn't suffer from mental illness then). In contrast, Zambreno's Ruth seems to live in the current day, and I'm not saying that women's roles are perfectly equal and free, but in contrast to the 1950s, things are a lot better. Ruth has more freedom, and she squanders it. The extensive literary and cultural references seem to indicate that Ruth is bright and well educated, but nothing in her actions supports this.
So, maybe I'm old and cranky and don't get today's younger women.
I also did not love the narrative structure. There's a narrator of sorts who watches Ruth and occasionally comments on her. The opening makes the narrator sound like she's giving birth to Ruth, but later the narrator sounds more sinister than maternal. Is the opening scene meant to show the author giving birth to the character, with the following commentary operating as metafiction? I dunno. I didn't like it. It seemed tricksy and pretentious to me, without adding any particular value to the overall story.
Finally, because I am such a Plath geek and the back of the book makes such a big deal about comparing Green Girl to Plath, let's look at some of the language used:
Ruth describes how free she feels after her mother dies: "Like an umbilicus had been snapped." Plath's vitriolic poem about her mother, Medusa, says: "My mind winds to you/Old barnacled umbilicus".
Ruth: "Immersed in the glow of thingness." Plath: "I love the thinginess of things."
Ruth: "She hadn't known she desired a beast. Someone to destroy her." Plath: "There is a panther stalks me down:/One day I'll have my death of him".
Ruth: "Phrases flit through her head. My mad girl's love song, a hymn of HIM." Plath: poem titled "Mad Girl's Love Song."
Ruth: "He had a slight bruise around one eye, that lent him a sort of dangerous vulnerability. A bit of a brute." Plath: "Every woman adores a Fascist,/the boot in the face, the brute/brute heart of a brute like you."
Derivative of Plath and the Bell Jar, but that's a tough act to emulate. For me? It didn't work.