We first meet Leda in a coffee shop on an average afternoon, notable only for the fact that it’s the single occasion in her life when she will eat two scones in one day. And for the cute boy reading American Power and the New Mandarins. Leda hopes that, by engaging him, their banter will lead to romance. Their fleeting, awkward exchange stalls before flirtation blooms. But Leda’s left with one imperative thought: she decides she wants to read Noam Chomsky. So she promptly buys a book and never—ever—reads it.
As the days, years, and decades of the rest of her life unfold, we see all of the things Leda does instead, from eating leftover spaghetti in her college apartment, to fumbling through the first days home with her newborn daughter, to attempting (and nearly failing) to garden in her old age. In a collage of these small moments, we see the work—both visible and invisible—of a woman trying to carve out a life of meaning. Over the course of her experiences Leda comes to the universal revelation that the best-laid-plans are not always the path to utter fulfillment and contentment, and in reality there might be no such thing. Lively and disarmingly honest, The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky is a remarkable literary feat—bracingly funny, sometimes heartbreaking, and truly feminist in its insistence that the story it tells is an essential one.
I think that this book is exactly what the blurb says it will be—which is a wonderful thing to say about a book, because sometimes you read a blurb and you read the tiny excerpt and you get the book, and it’s not what you were led to believe it was going to be. Sometimes, that’s okay, and other times it’s incredibly frustrating. This book does indeed follow Leda—the main character—through life, starting when she’s in college all the way to her death. The epilogue is told from her daughter’s point of view, although to be more accurate, it’s in limited third person. I enjoyed the candidness of the novel; we get Leda’s occasionally illogical behaviors and her bouts with depression; we also get to talk about things that impact huge numbers of women at an individual level. Do not expect huge does of romance, or eroticism in this book—yes, people fall in love and have sex, but that isn’t the point of the book and it’s given a different kind of attention.
As a whole, this novel reads quickly, but it can feel slow while you’re sitting with it. This book doesn’t hide how Leda—and other women, to a certain extent—worry a great deal about things that aren’t important, or make them happy. Leda is, at the beginning of the book, in college as some kind of English major, possibly leaning more in the direction of creative writing. Let me tell you, she is a much better English major than I ever was, because when I wasn’t reading for class, I was reading romance and fantasy novels. Leda reads literary novels, even during the summer. Leda also is incredibly polite to and concerned about inconveniencing people—especially men—when she really doesn’t have to be. For example, she spends an absurd amount of time worrying about taking up a lawn chair at a hotel’s swimming pool. She apologizes to a plant for getting on an elevator first. I apologize a great deal, so I empathize with the deep urge to apologize, and the feeling that one’s actions will inconvenience a stranger. At the same time, because it’s in a novel, and also because her boyfriend points out how ridiculous this kind of behavior is, I found myself cringing. This is the kind of candidness I appreciated about the novel. Maybe because a lot of literary novels I’ve read in the past tend to focus on men, this kind of writing feels new and evocative to me.
This novel also manages to talk about issues that affect large numbers of women at a personal level. The biggest example is the pain and dearth of orgasms for women with regards to sex. A few months ago, several articles were making the rounds of my little Internet corner about how many women experience pain during sex, and how few women orgasm during sex, so that the idea of pleasurable sex is different for women and men. Which is sad. And if you’re worried about Leda, yes, she gets orgasms. But before that happens, she has a conversation with another young woman about how painful sex has been for them and how neither of them have ever orgasmed while having sex. They both thought they were “the only one” experiencing this. For Leda, the solution is finding someone “you love and feel comfortable enough with.” Leda also struggles with depression when she moves with her boyfriend to California after he gets a job with Google. She walks away from an MFA program and her parents and everything that was familiar to her. I’ve witnessed other women go through similar situations, and it felt vindicating to have that kind of experience validated on the page. It doesn’t make those kinds of feelings better or more manageable, but it’s heartening to have them put into a book.
Like I said earlier, this book follows Leda all the way to the end of her life, and the epilogue takes up from her daughter’s point of view. Interestingly enough, the voice/tone felt exactly the same, even though it was being told from another character’s point of view. That was the one very frustrating thing that stuck out at me after putting down the book, which sounds very technical. Some of Leda’s choices very much placed her as a woman from the upper middle class, particularly a white woman. That is okay, because this book is following a woman through her life—not judging her as she lives her life.
I believe that the last line of the book sums it up best. It was “… beautiful, irreverent, oppressively real.”
You can buy a copy here.