Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘heroines’

iris gumption kate winslet the holiday

I can’t remember exactly when I first saw The Holiday, but I remember the text my sister sent me after she saw it, with our mom: We found your dream house.

She was talking, of course, about the cozy book-filled English cottage belonging to Iris Simpkins (Kate Winslet), set among fields outside a quiet village near London. It has a spacious kitchen and a fireplace and so many sweet details, and those shelves lined with books. I instantly fell in love with the cottage, and also with Iris herself: smart, spunky, kindhearted and struggling to fully believe in her own brilliance. Perhaps it is no surprise that I saw myself in her.

I watch this film at least once a year, and I love Iris more every time: her romantic’s heart, her willingness to try new things (though she’s been stuck in the same loop for a while), her genuine curiosity about people. I especially love watching her pull away from the unhealthy patterns – including the toxic man – she’s been clinging to for a long time.

She has some help with this, in true rom-com fashion: a charming film composer (who knew Jack Black could be charming?) who brings her Starbucks and entertains her with his renditions of movie scores, and her elderly neighbor, Arthur (Eli Wallach), who tells her bluntly that she’s a “leading lady” but is behaving like a cinematic best friend. In short: Iris is way more brilliant and worthy than she believes she is, and she needs to dig deep to find the gumption to move forward with her life. (Arthur also gives her a long list of movies to watch, all featuring “powerhouse women” – he knows as well as anyone that we all need heroines and role models.)

Gradually, Iris begins to believe in herself again: finding her way around a new place, helping Arthur get into better shape, even throwing a party or two. I always want to stand up and cheer when she finally tells off her smarmy ex, Jasper (Rufus Sewell), toward the end of the film. “What has got into you?” he asks her, baffled. “I don’t know!” she says joyfully. “But I think what I’ve got is something slightly resembling – gumption!”

Gumption, largely inspired by Iris, was my word for the year in 2016. I had no idea how much I would need it, in a year that included two job changes, a move, and an election whose effects are still echoing in some ways. It is still an attribute I keep reaching for, in this lingering pandemic which includes (for me) another job hunt, continuing to heal from my divorce, and more solitude (and loneliness) than I ever thought possible.

I don’t for a moment believe that Iris’ new self-belief, or the new romance that came with it, solved all her problems. But I believe she’s on her way, and on the days when I emulate her and reach for my own gumption, it’s easier to believe that I am too.

Read Full Post »

I watched Runaway Bride a few weeks ago, because I desperately needed to laugh and feel like part of a community, and a visit to Hale, Maryland, sounded just right. The community there – the women at the hair salon, the bakery where people buy muffins and trade gossip, the multigenerational town softball game – is one of my favorite parts of this sweet film. Peggy Flemming (not the ice skater!), played by Joan Cusack, is my favorite character: she’s hilarious and wise, and such a good friend.

As with You’ve Got Mail, there is a love story here, but I find it less important (and, frankly, a little more troubling) the more times I watch this movie. Richard Gere’s character, New York journalist Ike Graham, is so convinced of his own importance that it’s refreshing to watch multiple women – including his editor and ex-wife, played by Rita Wilson – take him down a peg (or smack him with his own newspaper). But the main character, and the one in whose journey I’m most interested, is Maggie Carpenter, played by Julia Roberts.

When we meet Maggie, she’s running the family hardware store; she clearly enjoys her work and her customers, though we find out later that she’s also there because of her dad’s drinking problem. She’s also getting ready – for the fourth time – to get married. She has never been able to go through with it, and later in the film, as Ike Graham predicts, we see her run again (this time from him).

Her fifth failed wedding finally prompts some much-needed introspection: who is Maggie Carpenter, and what does she actually want? I love the scene where she’s prepared about ten different kinds of eggs to try, since she’s been ordering whatever her current guy wanted for years now. She goes for long solo runs, finally confronts her father about his drinking, and places her lamps made of industrial parts up for sale in New York stores. She doesn’t blow up her life entirely, but tries to figure out if it’s actually the one she wants – or if she has simply been living by everyone else’s expectations for far too long.

Maggie didn’t grow up in the Bible Belt, like I did, but her rush to the altar – not because she necessarily wants a wedding but because that’s what everyone expects – rings true for me. I went to a small Christian college in Texas where “ring by spring” was not just a catchy phrase but a real phenomenon. (My ex and I, at 24, were actually the last couple in one of our groups of friends to get married.) There is so much pressure for women to conform to the cultural norm – in this case, a big white wedding to a handsome man – that there’s not always a lot of space to figure out what you might want instead.

At the end of the film, Maggie comes to New York, having figured out what she wants – namely, eggs Benedict, and Ike – and made the decision on her own terms for the first time. I love that she quotes his proposal speech from earlier in the movie, but I love even more her admission that she didn’t know herself, not really, and that she needed to before she could commit to another person. (The journey is often longer in real life, of course, but this is still the movies, and we know these characters are heading for a happy ending.)

When Maggie ran away from the altar all those times, she was instinctively backing away from the wrong men, but I think she was also running from a deeper truth: knowing, and liking, yourself can be much harder than meeting all of society’s expectations for you. I never ran from a wedding, but I did get divorced after more than a decade of marriage, and the last two years have been (among other things) an exercise in getting to know myself and the kind of life I actually want.

I’m not sure if Maggie is still running the hardware store, working full-time as a lighting designer in Manhattan, or doing something else altogether. I hope her marriage to Ike brought her years of happiness; they make each other laugh and keep each other honest, which I think is important for love. But most of all, I hope she kept following her own inner compass, wherever it led. And as with Kathleen Kelly, my hopes for Maggie are also, ultimately, my hopes for myself.

Read Full Post »

upper west side view

Of all the late-nineties rom-coms featuring plucky heroines, adorable New York apartments and lives full of utter charm, You’ve Got Mail might be my favorite.

I saw it in the theater as a teenager, and have watched it countless times since – with my family, my girlfriends, by myself. I remember the days of dial-up AOL and the magic of finding new friends online before social media, though I am about 15 years younger than Kathleen Kelly. I once spent a weekend on the Upper West Side visiting some of the movie’s iconic locations: Cafe Lalo, Zabar’s, Gray’s Papaya, the 91st Street Garden in Riverside Park. (I did not see Joe and Brinkley, but you can bet I looked.) I still have the soundtrack on CD, and New York in the fall definitely makes me want to buy school supplies.

You’ve Got Mail continues to charm me for so many reasons: the witty, perfectly timed dialogue; the cozy bookshop packed with beloved children’s classics and kind employees; the epistolary love story (though I have thoughts, these days, about Joe Fox and his personal ethics). But the more time I spend with it, the more clearly I see what my friend Kari noted years ago: in addition to a classic romantic comedy, it is (in Kari’s words) “a moving portrait of a woman who is going through a crisis of vocation.”

Kathleen has always known she’d run The Shop Around the Corner; she started helping her mother there after school at age six, and never left. We don’t even know if she went to college, or entertained other dreams for her life. She has grown up shaped by this bookstore and this neighborhood, and she would happily go on selling children’s books there forever. But she is not given that choice: Fox Books moves in across the way, and its big-box appeal (coupled, no doubt, with rising rents and the lurking shadow of Amazon) forces Kathleen to make a decision she never foresaw: “Close. We’re going to close.”

I’ve thought about Kathleen a lot this past year, as the pandemic has upended so many of the jobs most of us believed would bring us stability and security. I was furloughed from my higher ed job last May, then finally laid off in January after months of waiting. This wasn’t the first time, though: my last few years in higher ed have been marked by uncertainty and change, including two previous layoffs and a few temp gigs. The thing I have been chasing – meaningful work that provided a steady paycheck and health insurance in an industry I thought was stable – has turned out not to be so reliable after all.

“What are you going to do now?” a customer asks Kathleen as she rings up books (and stuffs in a box of Kleenex) at the closing sale. She gives a vague but honest answer: she’s going to take some time. We see her doing just that in the last third of the movie: reading a thick novel at a coffee shop, buying plants and produce with Joe Fox, heating up a bowl of soup and sitting on the floor in her apartment to eat it and bask in the sunshine. I suspect she also must have done some grieving. She must have wondered – what now? Earlier in the film, she had wondered in an email if her life’s smallness meant it didn’t have value, or that she lacked courage. Now, that life is no longer available to her, and she has to figure out the next step on a road she never saw coming.

We don’t get a tidy resolution of Kathleen’s career story; we don’t get to see her take her next professional step, though she hints that she’s working on a children’s book. I hope that whatever she does next, it is rich and satisfying and allows her to use all that experience from decades of working at the store. I hope her previous life leads, in both good and surprising ways, to her next one. I hope she realizes how brave she truly is – as Birdie tells her, “You are daring to imagine that you could have a different life.” I hope she’s happy with Joe, of course, but more than that I hope she is fulfilled in her own skin and satisfied with the way she gets to spend her days.

My hopes for Kathleen, of course, are also my hopes for myself. (Isn’t that what we do with our heroines – see ourselves in them, and then project our own hopes onto them?) In the wake of an extremely difficult year, I am hoping – and searching – for a steady paycheck, for sure. But I am also hoping for work that gives me a rich, satisfying, joyful way to spend my days. I think Kathleen would approve.

Read Full Post »

cafe lalo table berries teacup

It’s no secret I love a good romantic comedy, and there are a handful from the ’90s and early 2000s that are particularly close to my heart. Nora Ephron’s films did more than anything else to shape my early visions of New York City. (I once spent an entire solo weekend on the Upper West Side pretending to be Kathleen Kelly.)

During the pandemic, I’ve revisited a few of my favorites, and here’s the thing: I find myself less interested in the love stories these days than in the other elements of these women’s lives.

Part of it is simple familiarity: I’ve seen You’ve Got Mail dozens of times. I can pinpoint the exact moments when sparks fly between Julia Roberts and Richard Gere in Runaway Bride. I know just how Miles, that sweet film composer played by Jack Black, charms Iris (Kate Winslet) without even meaning to in The Holiday. And my entire family can quote the “leaning” scene (along with the hilarious family dinner dialogue) from While You Were Sleeping.

I don’t have to wonder whether or how these characters are going to fall in love. (Though I have to admit my 2021 self cringes a little bit at the sheer arrogance of a few male romantic leads.) But I am interested, now more than ever, in these women as real people: not only in their romantic adventures, but the struggles they face in the rest of their lives.

I want to know what Kathleen Kelly ended up doing after she had to close The Shop Around the Corner. I want to see photos from Lucy and Jack’s honeymoon in Florence, but then I want to know about their life together: future family holidays, the next step in Lucy’s career. I wonder if Maggie Carpenter was content running the family hardware store for the rest of her life, or if the edgy lamps she sold in NYC – and her love affair with a New York writer – catapulted her into a different career. And I hope – so much – that Iris, buoyed by Miles’ love and Arthur’s friendship and the gumption of a thousand Old Hollywood heroines, never let any man dim her brilliance ever again.

It’s a new month, and I need a new blog series, so for the next few Mondays, I’ll be diving into some of the films I adore, and musing on the other parts of these heroines’ stories: work and career, family and identity. I hope you’ll join me. It’s going to be fun.

Read Full Post »

Here we are, at the end of a month of running posts – I did it, even though I wasn’t always sure I could come up with anything new to say. Since today also happens to be Halloween, I’m sharing a photo of the only 5K I have ever (yet) run in costume and talking about my love of Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman.

I wasn’t a comic-book reader as a child, and I am a little bit younger than the target audience of Lynda Carter’s iconic show. But I have a long history of loving badass heroines, and the 2017 Wonder Woman film captured my imagination. I loved Gal Gadot’s portrayal of courage, humanity, compassion and strength (not to mention the fact that she can fight evil and dance in the falling snow with equal grace). Since then, I’ve come to identify deeply with the character, who is both fierce and tender, committed to justice and just as committed to preventing needless violence.

As a runner, I’ve had to dig deep to find my physical strength on the days when getting out there (or getting through it) is a real struggle. But my association with Wonder Woman is more about that mental toughness I’ve found partly through running: the grit it takes to keep going, the grace to breathe through a tough situation and make it through.

The annual East “Booston” costume 5K went virtual this year, so I didn’t pull out my Wonder Woman outfit to run the race (though I did participate). But I wear a red leather wrap bracelet with the WW logo every single day. And though she’s perhaps not a runner in the modern sense, Diana is definitely one of my heroes in running and life.

Thanks for sticking with me through a month of #run31 posts, friends. It’s been fun. If you’re celebrating, happy Halloween. And if you live in the U.S. and you haven’t yet, please vote.

Read Full Post »

For several years now, I’ve been following Jenny Williams’ work online – she runs the adorable Carrot Top Paper Shop on Etsy, and her Instagram account and newsletter are full of sweet literary goodness. She sells prints, mugs, bookmarks and stickers with quotes from our favorite heroines (real and fictional), and like me, she’s an Anne Shirley fan from way back.

I ordered Jenny’s literary heroines calendar for my kitchen wall this year, and I love the simple design: each month features a drawing of a beloved character, along with a banner naming one of her essential qualities. When I flipped the calendar to April this week, Fern Arable was looking back at me. The banner under her portrait says simply, “Compassionate.”

Fern is the (human) heroine of Charlotte’s Web (though we all know the real heroine is that wonderful spider). She saves Wilbur the piglet from certain death at the beginning of the book, and she cares for him until he’s sold to her uncle, at which point she still comes to visit him. She is tenderhearted and kind, and she’s the only human in the book who can understand animal conversation, at least for a while.

It strikes me that in this moment, we need a dose of Fern’s compassion: we are all doing our best to tend to ourselves and our people, while supporting the healthcare workers and others who are working to heal the sick. I am sure Jenny couldn’t have known what an apt heroine Fern would be for April, but I’m glad to have her face on my kitchen wall this month.

Read Full Post »

strand bookstore cookbook shelves

Early December always leaves me breathless. But – thank goodness – there are the books. (Photo from my recent trip to the Strand.)

Here’s the latest roundup:

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, Abbi Waxman
I loved Waxman’s debut, The Garden of Small Beginnings. (I was ambivalent about her second novel, Other People’s Houses.) And I liked this, her third novel following introvert, bookseller and trivia whiz Nina Hill as she deals with various unexpected pieces of news. Really witty, though a lot of the characters felt two-dimensional. I liked seeing Lili and her daughters (from Small Beginnings) again. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 9, 2019).

How to Be a Heroine: Or What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much, Samantha Ellis
In her thirties, Ellis began to wonder: did the literary heroines she’d loved as a child still have something to teach her? The answer, of course, is yes. I loved Ellis’ memoir of finding her way as a person and a writer, and revisiting characters like Sara Crewe, Scarlett O’Hara and others. Some are my heroines too (Anne Shirley!) and some are newer to me, like Lucy Honeychurch and Scheherazade. So much fun.

Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future, Pete Buttigieg
Buttigieg is the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and his memoir traces his journey to public service and his experience in the mayor’s office. He’s a Harvard grad, a Navy reserve veteran, a data-driven geek and a warm, thoughtful writer. City government may not sound exciting, but I found his narrative so compelling and hopeful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 26).

The Proposal, Jasmine Guillory
Freelance writer Nikole Patterson is blindsided when her actor boyfriend proposes via the JumboTron at a Dodgers game – and he spells her name wrong! When Carlos and his sister rescue Nik from a camera crew, Carlos and Nik become friends and then something more. But what, exactly? A really fun romance with lots of tacos, cupcakes and women’s empowerment messages. The latter felt a bit heavy-handed, but I enjoyed the story – especially since I knew (and liked) Carlos from Guillory’s debut, The Wedding Date.

A Borrowing of Bones, Paula Munier
After a tour in Afghanistan where she lost her fiancé, Martinez, Mercy Carr has retreated to rural Vermont along with Martinez’s working dog, Elvis. When they find an adult skeleton and a baby girl (very much alive) in the woods, Mercy teams up with game warden Troy Warner to find the baby’s mother and the identity of the victim. A well-plotted, thoughtful mystery; first in a new series. Reminded me a bit of Julia Spencer-Fleming’s mysteries, which I adore.

Hope Never Dies, Andrew Shaffer
After the 2016 election, former VP Joe Biden is bored and restless. But when his favorite Amtrak conductor dies under suspicious circumstances, Biden and his old friend Barack Obama team up (with Obama’s requisite Secret Service escort) to solve the mystery. A fun, often witty bromance and a pretty good mystery. (I love the premise almost more than the execution.)

So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo
Conversations about race are often fraught, and Oluo, a black activist and writer, pulls no punches in this primer about how to talk and listen. It’s meant (mostly) for well-meaning white folks like me. Powerful and thought-provoking.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith. If you’re shopping for holiday gifts, please consider supporting indie bookstores – either in your community or by ordering from them online. 

What are you reading?

Read Full Post »

In memory of Mary

mary tyler moore hat

A few years ago, soon after I moved to Boston, I fell completely in love with The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I’d watched it occasionally in reruns as a child, but this time I checked the DVDs out from our library and savored every single episode. I love Lou Grant, Rhoda, Murray and the whole cast, but Mary Richards – sweet, spunky, hardworking, brave Mary – is my favorite.

I loved her chic wardrobe and cozy studio apartment. I laughed aloud at her eloquent facial expressions and quick wit. I cheered as she made her own way in a big city, forging a new career (as I was doing much the same thing). And I related in a deep and visceral way to the struggle between being a “nice girl,” staying true to yourself and your values, and standing up to sexism or other prejudices.

Mary belongs to my grandparents’ generation, and her show was popular in my parents’ youth. But much of what we’re fighting for, as women and as human beings, has not changed. (In the current political climate, this truth is coming home to me every single day.)

Mary Tyler Moore died this week, and I’ve been thinking about her – both the character I love and the actress who pushed television forward with her bold, funny, utterly real performance. She may have “turned the world on with her smile,” as the show’s theme song has it, but she also lit up the world with her courage, wit and grace.

Thank you, Mary. You made us laugh, you made us think and you made us brave. I think you made it after all.

Read Full Post »

rilla of ingleside book tulips

I’ve been thinking about Rilla Blythe lately.

Rilla is Anne Shirley Blythe’s youngest daughter, the last of the six children who grew up at Ingleside in the golden years before World War I. In August 1914, she’s nearly fifteen: pretty, pampered, a little spoiled, but still sweet. She’s never had to do many disagreeable things, apart from the occasional household chore. But when war erupts in Europe, it upends her entire world.

Rilla of Ingleside is the story of how the women of Ingleside – Rilla, Anne, their faithful cook-housekeeper Susan, and Miss Oliver, the local schoolteacher – grit their way through the dark days of war. It’s one of the lesser-known Anne books, but it’s one of my favorites. I’ve read it a dozen times, and I love it so much.

As I make my way through both winter and the job hunt, a few lines from Rilla’s story keep coming back to me.

“I finished my sixth pair of socks today,” Rilla writes in her diary one evening. “With the first three I got Susan to set the heel for me. Then I thought that was a bit of shirking, so I learned to do it myself. I hate it – but I have done so many things I hate since 4th of August [when war was declared] that one more or less doesn’t make any difference.”

When war comes, both Susan and Rilla resolve, separately but with similar motivations, to be “as brave and heroic and unselfish” as they can be. Rilla’s declaration comes with italics and drama (she is fifteen, after all); Susan’s comes with a plain, old-fashioned sense of duty. They, and the entire village of Glen St. Mary, spend the next four years adjusting to new realities and, in the face of tragedy, simply doing what must be done.

They are no saints: they get frustrated, tired and worn down, and Rilla shares her troubles with the reader as she blows off steam in her diary. Even Miss Oliver says one day, in a rare moment of desperation, “There’s nothing heroic about me today. I’ve slumped.” But they always pick up courage and go on, helped in no small measure by letters from their boys at the front, and by one another.

I am in the middle of a few long, hard struggles, notably winter (we are now in the grit-your-teeth phase) and the continuing job hunt. I have to do a lot of things I’d rather not do, these days. But often, thinking about Rilla and her umpteen pairs of socks (and the many other tasks of wartime) helps me pluck up a bit of gumption to keep going. As she says to herself on a particularly difficult evening, “I must stay here and see things through.”

I’ve written often about how my fictional heroines keep me company or inspire me when things are rough. Do you have any fictional characters (or good words in general) that you draw on when you need wisdom or strength?

Read Full Post »

Veronica Mars

veronica mars

Trust me to get excited about a TV show because of a book.

When Anne did a giveaway on her blog last month for Veronica Mars fans, I didn’t enter, because I hadn’t yet seen the show. But I’d already heard about the Kickstarter-funded VM movie, made possible by the show’s legions of fans. And when Anne said she’d enjoyed the first brand-new Veronica Mars mystery novel, I was definitely intrigued.

(Also, after finishing Call the Midwife, I needed a new show. And Valerie, my college friend who is a whiz at finding the good stuff on TV, is a longtime VM fan.)

When the show opens, Veronica is a high school junior in Neptune, California, “a town without a middle class.” As the daughter of sheriff Keith Mars and girlfriend of Duncan Kane, one of the coolest, richest guys in school, she used to enjoy a certain cachet. But when Veronica’s best friend Lilly Kane (Duncan’s sister) was brutally murdered, some of the evidence pointed to Lilly and Duncan’s father, a powerful software billionaire. Keith followed his conscience and accused Lilly’s father of being involved in his daughter’s death – thus losing both his job and his reputation. Keith’s alcoholic wife, Lianne, skipped town soon after that, and Veronica and her dad were left on their own.

Hardened by Lilly’s death and her subsequent shunning by nearly everyone at Neptune High, Veronica takes a job working for Keith in his new private investigation business. She helps with his cases, sometimes does her own sleuthing on the side – and is determined to find out who killed Lilly, and why.

With its film-noir overtones and deep, dark secrets (Neptune is full of people pretending everything is just fine when it’s not), Veronica Mars is grittier than some of the more lighthearted shows I love. But the mystery plots are compelling, the ensemble cast is fantastic, the snark is abundant, and the heroine is tough, smart, resourceful and determined to bring Lilly’s killer (and other criminals) to justice. Veronica is more pragmatic than high-minded – she’s not above playing dirty to get what she wants or exact revenge – but she’s ultimately on the side of the victim and the underdog.

Veronica likes to pretend she doesn’t need anyone else, but I love her friendship with basketball star Wallace Fennel (whom she rescues from public humiliation on his first day at Neptune High) and her occasional tender father-daughter exchanges with Keith. And Veronica’s uneasy friendship with Eli “Weevil” Navarro, the leader of a local biker gang, provides insight into the constant tensions of race and class in Neptune. I don’t think much of Veronica’s taste in boyfriends so far, but I’m curious to see whether that will change.

After binge-watching half a dozen episodes during my hibernation weekend, I blazed through the rest of season 1 and have now gotten the hubs hooked too. We’re midway through season 2, which is darker and more sordid than season 1, but Veronica is quickly becoming one of those heroines I’d follow to the ends of the earth.

Have you watched Veronica Mars – the show or the movie? What do you think?

(Image from Zap2it)

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »