Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Smart One and the Pretty One

Occasionally a free book offer comes my way when I'm in the mood for something completely different (in the Monty Python phrase). So I said yes to the offer of Claire LaZebnik's new novel The Smart One and the Pretty One, and it was sent to me by Miriam at Hachette book group.

It's about two sisters; the smart one, Ava, is a lawyer who prides herself on being responsible and not caring much about her appearance, and the pretty one, Lauren, is a clothing saleswoman who loves to show off her best features and can't control her spending. When Lauren loses her job and her apartment because of all the money she owes, Ava lets her move in but makes her sign a contract agreeing not to spend any more money for six months. Lauren, in turn, produces the man that their mother jokingly signed a contract "betrothing" Ava to as a child. Each sister learns a bit about what is important to the other one as the novel progresses. It's pretty standard chick-lit, which is what I expected.

What I didn't expect is the cogent treatment of how appearance matters even for "the smart one." Ava doesn't want to pay any attention to how she dresses and looks because she thinks it will make her seem less serious about her career. The funny thing is that she looks enough like her clotheshorse sister for various people throughout the novel to mistake them for twins, as here:
"The resemblance is striking. Are you twins?"
They both shook their heads and Lauren said, "Nope, she's older."

At first I thought Ava and Lauren were going to be opposites--mere foils to each other--because of passages like this one:
"Lauren crouched down and sorted through some shoeboxes she had stacked on the floor of Ava's closet, seized on one with a shout of joy, and extracted from it a pair of silver high-heeled sandals. "There you are, my beauties!" She jumped to her feet, clutching them to her chest.
"Please tell me you're not hugging your shoes," Ava said.
"I love these shoes."
"How can you love a pair of shoes?"

But then I saw what Ava was up against at her firm:
"One of the male lawyers was leaning across the table toward Ava and saying "I can name five female lawyers in our firm who left within the last three years because they wanted to stay home with their kids. I can't think of a single man who left for that reason. Why shouldn't that factor into our hiring decisions?"
"Because it's punishing future candidates for choices other people have made," Ava said...."And I've known far more women who haven't left the firm after having kids than ones who have."
A woman who is still being forced to participate in debates like this during social events with colleagues probably has had to work to project a more serious image than other women. The thing I like about Ava's characterization is that you see the process she goes through as her sister insists she broaden her idea of what a serious female lawyer can look like.

One morning Ava wakes up to find that Lauren has laid out her clothes and insists on doing her hair and makeup. When she's ready to go to work, she asks her sister why and Lauren says
I'm just proving a point....It took all of ten extra minutes--not even--to get you ready this morning and you look a thousand times better than usual."
"It's still ten wasted minutes. And I think 'a thousand times' is an exaggeration."
"How wasted?" Lauren asked. "What would you have done with those ten minutes otherwise?"
"I could have worked," Ava said. "I bill at three hundred dollars an hour."
Notice that she doesn't say I could save another innocent client, but I could be making money. Ava is loosening her heels from the way they've been dug into the moral high ground.

Lauren manipulates Ava into several dates with Russell, the boy Ava was "betrothed" to as a child. He is now the "managing director" of a "clothing line," and on one date he takes Ava, who has always ordered her unflattering but practical clothes from catalogs, to try on some of "his" clothes. "You look fantastic," he tells her; "I knew there was a great pair of legs under those dowdy skirts. You need a different bra, though." Russell insists on giving her a few of the clothes that suit her best, and following it up by buying her a pair of expensive shoes to match. Ava is furious, certain that he's doing it because he doesn't like the way she looks. She's like the seventies feminists who thought it showed they were serious if they wore denim overalls all the time, or the two female academics of my acquaintance who refuse to shave their legs, even now that it's no longer true that "women in Europe never shave theirs." When Ava finally confronts Russell, she says
"you only seem to be attracted to me when I'm dressed a certain way. Your way."
"That's stupid,"Russell said. "I'd be attracted to you no matter what you wore. In fact, you could be naked, Ava, and I'd be attracted to you. Really. I mean that."
But rather than charmed by his jokes, Ava remains skeptical of his motives for liking to see her in the kind of clothes he sells.

By the end of the novel, Ava realizes that rather than living free from the tyranny of caring about what she looks like, she has been living in "fear of being judged and found wanting." It's not a big point...but I really enjoy the passage where she stumbles in her new shoes "and wanted to curse her shoes because their heels were too high--but then she remembered that the shoes were also pretty and expensive and a perfectly lovely gift for a man to give a woman he liked, and if she slipped in them, it was because of her own clumsiness and not some fault of theirs."

I agree with Lauren, who initially irritated me, about the importance of having a little fun with your appearance every once in a while; I get so tired of hearing people say they don't like to dress up. I don't believe that the comfort of a pair of shoes is always more important than how pretty they look. I look forward to occasions for wearing the string of pearls my parents gave me when I finished my PhD.

What do you think? Here are some questions from the author's "book club guide" to her novel: Have you ever been in a relationship where you felt your significant other was trying to change you in some way? Have you ever tried to change the person you were with? How do you feel if someone gives you a gift that is more for the way he/she thinks you SHOULD be than the way you ARE?


Nymeth said...

I've never had someone try to change the way I look significantly (though I do get comments about how I should wear my hair and whatnot from friends and sometimes random acquaintances). But I think part of the problem for Ava and for many woman is that "smart" and "pretty" are still constructed as mutually exclusive categories. I sympathize with Ava's fear of not being taken seriously if she pays attention to how she looks. But I also agree with you that there's nothing wrong whatsoever with dressing up - it can be such fun.

Jeanne said...

Nymeth, I refuse to make any concessions to the ludicrous idea that a smart woman can't also be pretty and have fun. Of course, I also refuse to admit that summer is over until I'm freezing my toes off in sandals...

Nymeth said...

You're absolutely right, Jeanne. It IS a ludicrous idea, and the best strategy is to make no concessions at all. But the social pressure can be hard to deal with, especially when growing up! (I handle it better now than I did even just a few years ago. Or so I like to think :P)

Claire said...

Hi! Thanks so much for writing about my book, Jeanne. People have asked me which character I'm more like as far as dressing goes and the truth is I'm not like either. I have four kids so most days I'm lucky if I leave the house unstained--but I LOVE dressing up for special occasions. It's all the more fun because I'm usually such a mess. And, to answer your question, my 12-year-old daughter is starting to try to get me to look nicer. She even offered to lay out my clothes for me the night before!

Jeanne said...

Nymeth, Maybe the fear of not being taken seriously as an adult comes from seeing the way some pretty girls act when pretty first starts to have value with the opposite sex.

Claire, Thanks for stopping by! Part of the pleasure of dressing up can certainly be the difference from the everyday--when I was in my early 20's, I had a conversation with a friend in which we agreed that we weren't going to wear makeup for everyday, because we liked the idea that we could always look better.

FreshHell said...

No, no, and yes. But that last refers to gifts from my mother. And it's not so much how she wishes I be but how she wishes she could be or how she thinks I am but isn't. She gives me things of value to her but not me. I've never dated anyone who has tried to change me. And vice versa. I'm more likely to break up with them than change them.

Florinda said...

I've seen several reviews of this book, but haven't really read one until yours, and I'm pleasantly surprised that there seems to be more substance here than I'd expected - thanks for the insight!

I've been more likely to change my look based on what I believe someone else wants to see than because they think I should change it. Sad, huh? Fortunately, the older I get, the less likely I am to behave that way.

Jodie said...

I love to dress up, because it's fun and it makes people say nice things and y'know clothes and shoes are awesome (duh shoes are art sometimes). However I still think I look most like me and am most like me in plaid, cool flats and jeans, that's my base 'me' that I love above all other dressed up versions of 'me'. If someone can't can't find me sexy in my plaid pj bottoms they're looking in the wrong place, because I think that's what I look most 'womanly' in.

Anyhoo - digression is so hard to fight the exclusive pretty, smart boxes people put you in(read men, because this particular issue is all men in my opinion - the majority of women learn to stop saying 'oh I would never expect that of you from the way you look' in their teens if they are smart). I'm blonde and so many people assume I don't have a degree, or that I'm essentially dumb (and about a ton of other things as well - blonde girls don't like motorbike racing apparently, or old school metal) and I do find myself starting to play to that idea, because it is easier than seeing the condescending looks when guys think you are 'trying to be smart'. And that's wrong, so wrong, but sometimes it's easier and sometimes as a smart girl it's easier to dress down and let everyone focus on your intellect.

I'd say some people can't accept smart and pretty in women, because they think women aren't suppoused to be it all. Men are the achievers, the successes and women are the also rans, the triers in their minds. So they feel threantened if you're both and they try to put you in a box asap so you don't threaten them. Once someone starts telling you you're the smart one you play to that strength because you think they've noticed you're not strong in the other area and rather than making a fool of yourself you eliminate that area so you can show off your potential and your strength.

Yeah I hope that made some sense, somewhere in there.

kittiesx3 said...

I’d sum up my entire first marriage—all 16 years of it—as one long fruitless attempt to change my personality to suit him. Notice I didn’t say who was trying to change whom because it’s just not that clear cut. I know he wanted me to be different and I wanted to please him. Ultimately, starting college at 28 proved to be the end of the marriage as I found out others thought I wasn’t in need of a massive personality overhaul.

I know I’ve done something similar although I’d justify it as saying the man was much to smart to stay in entry level jobs the rest of his life, plus he really hated being in such low level jobs. I pushed hard for him to go to college, but college wasn’t transformative for him as it had been for me. I ended up leaving the relationship, not because he wouldn’t finish his degree but because he preferred to be miserable.


Jeanne said...

Freshhell, a mother who gives you things based on how she wishes she could be sounds difficult!

Florinda, I think that at either end of the height spectrum we're particularly susceptible to believing others want to see us a certain way, and it's not always true.

Jodie, I hadn't thought of being blonde in this particular way, but what you say does make sense.

Elizabeth,personality change is a bigger step. I do think I've known people a bit like Ava about not "caring" about appearance who end up choosing to be alone and miserable.