This is the story of the friendship between two women, a friendship that starts when they are girls and lasts over decades, following their braided lives as one marries and becomes the wife of a rich man while the other begins a career as a writer. The story is told from the first person perspective of the latter and explores what it means to be a woman in a capitalist society, with a distinct feminist slant.
And no, I am not referring to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, even though the similarities are more than striking and more than likely not coincidental – considering that the novel I am referring to here, Marge Piercy’s Braided Lives, is somewhat of a feminist classic, I think it is not too far-fetched to assume that it was the inspiration for the Italian author’s series of novels, and it actually was that assumption which made me decide to read Piercy’s novel right after the ones by Ferrante.
Which is why the following post will likely be focusing on the comparison between the two which is not quite fair towards Piercy’s novel, as it really deserves to be considered on its own terms and merits, not just as some kind of precursor to the Neapolitan Novels. So let me state outright (and I shall probably repeat this later) that Braided Lives stands very much on its own and is well worth reading even if you have not read Ferrante’s novels and maybe do not plan on ever doing so. As similar as both works are in their premise and concept, they read very differently indeed and I for one found it quite interesting to trace those differences.
First and probably most obvious is of course that Piercy’s novel – which is a “proper” novel with fictional protagonists (called Jill and Donna) but which on the other hand the author openly admits is inspired by her autobiography rather than taking Ferrante’s oblique approach on that matter – takes place in the USA rather in Italy; more important, however, is that place in general does not play as big a part in Braided Lives as it does in the Neapolitan Novels which are so firmly rooted in their setting that it almost becomes a protagonist in its own right. This gives Piercy’s novel a somewhat more universal air, a sense of “this could have happened anywhere” but it also increases the danger of the book coming across as didactic, a fable more concerned with the general than the personal, something which Ferrante, even with all her outspoken support of feminism and the labour movement, never did.
Marge Piercy, however, also manages to avoid that pitfall, and never turns her novel into a mere case history about patriarchal oppression of women. She achieves this mostly by virtue of her writing style which is – maybe somewhat paradoxically – simultaneously more openly literary and more personal than Ferrante’s. The Italian author’s prose is very reduced and matter-of-fact, only occasionally breaking out into short passages of beautiful writing which always are quickly reined in again. Piercy’s writing, on the other hand, is very rich in images and often assumes an outright lyrical tone (I was not at all surprised to find out, after reading Braided Lives, that she also writes poetry and has published several volumes of poems). Contrary to what one might expect, however, it is Ferrante’s apparently artless writing which comes across as objectified and (comparatively) distanced, while Piercy’s composed and arranged, openly artificial and writerly prose breathes subjectivity and has a much more immediate feel to it. And where Ferrante uses melodramatic narrative to draw in her readers, Piercy does it with her narrative voice whose tone oscillates between conversational poise and lyrical brilliance. The narrative of Braided Lives also shifts between present and future – while the focus of her story is clearly in the sixties and the friendship between the novel’s protagonists Jill and Donna, Piercy intersects her main narrative with episodes from the narrator’s present, during some of which she looks back at what has happened to her or her friends in the intervening time. This is a far shot from Ferrante unwinding her tale in a linear chronology, and again it is Piercy’s book which marks itself unabashedly as literary fiction while at the same time feeling – precisely thanks to the literary techniques she uses – much closer to the actual process of remembering.
What Piercy and Ferrante have in common, however – apart from their basic plot premise – is that both are very outspoken about women’s rights, so much that they are a, if not the central concern of both works. Both are very sensitive to the suppression of women in a patriarchal society, their never-ending discrimination in job, family and everyday life; and both show women who do not just accept that state of affairs and suffer in silence but who actively take a stand against it and even succeed. Succeed up to a point, that is, for even without the advantage of hindsight that the Neapolitan Novels have, Braided Lives leaves no doubt that things still are very bad (and in fact delivers that insight with a gut punch) and there still is room for improvement. My edition of the novel also has an introduction by the author in which she remarks on the lasting relevance of Braided Lives in the 21st century as conservatives increasingly try to cut back on women’s rights and to bring back precisely the state of affairs Piercy’s novel positions itself against But even if we’d be living in a feminist Utopia, Braided Lives would still be worth reading if only to see what it was like in the bad old days and what price women had to pay to get out from under the thumb of male oppression but also to celebrate the courage of those who did oppose the patriarchy, not all that infrequently literally risking their lives in doing so.