I’ve been married, I’ve been single, I’ve been in-between; have also been a granddaughter, daughter, mother, and grandmother. One experience I’ve never had (thank God, I think) is living with three generations of women under one roof. Fortunately, I know what it’s like without doing it, now that Ruth Pennebaker has written a standout novel about the whole crazy, convoluted chaotic mess … I mean, experience. Her new novel, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough, is the story of three women united by blood, one roof, and a single bathroom. (Oh, did I mention the house is small?) One function of a book such as this is that it’s like safe sex: you get to experience it but you don’t have to live with the consequences. This story is fascinating, but when you put the book down you are not actually living in that house. Phew.
Joanie, the middle of this sandwich, is throttling toward 50 and trying to get a handle on a new life. She’s recently divorced and newly employed. Her job is in an ad agency that makes “Mad Men” look like an island of well-behaved tranquility. (I think the polite term these days is that Joanie is in transition.) Her mother recently lost her savings in the recession … hence the need to move in with her. And her daughter is a teenager. ‘Nuff said. Oh, and her ex-husband’s girlfriend has just turned up pregnant.
In the meantime, Joanie’s 78-year-old mother, Ivy, likes to “Goggle” on the Internet about when the Rapture is coming, and she’s taken up shoplifting as a hobby. Her daughter, Caroline, is expressing her true self through marijuana and neon-pink hair, and trying to maneuver in a big high school where she’s socially invisible.
There’s much more, of course, since this is a novel offering comedy, life, great longing, and connections that are often missed. Because the author writes from the perspective of each of the three main characters, you begin to understand and root for these three women to succeed. You hope Joanie doesn’t keep her vow to give up sex forever. You want Ivy to make a place for her senior-citizen self in a new city and give up the sticky-fingers routine before the cops care called. You pull for Caroline to mature a bit and realize life is bigger than high school – and that she should stop giving her mother such a hard time, for pity’s sake.
In essence, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough is the story of the most complicated relationship on earth –mothers and daughters. Auden once said that a marriage is always “infinitely more interesting and significant” than any romance. He was right. But, trust me, when it comes to complexity and ambivalence, a mother-daughter relationship can leave most romances and marriages in the dust. As I said, I’ve never lived with three generations of women under a single roof, but thanks to Ruth Pennebaker’s wit and wisdom, I now have an idea of what it must be like. And for this threesome it all worked out — if not wonderfully, then certainly well enough. Look at it this way: reading about it may be way better than living it. But for the time you spend with this book, you will be under that roof, too.