Book Review: Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles

Two Serious Ladies

The novel, Two Serious Ladies, by Jane Bowles is a story where much happens, but nothing really happens. We follow two ladies on their adventures to make their lives more interesting, but there is no grand plot, no building toward a climax. Instead, the story begins strange and gets stranger. Bowles’s style is simple, free from too much description, though not as simplistic of a style as Junot Diaz or Raymond Carver, and it seems to be this way for the purpose of bringing out the quirks of the characters and their actions. One of the “serious ladies,” Christina Goering, was not liked much by other kids, but when a kid did give her some attention, she would “try her best to convert her new friend to the cult of whatever she believed in at the time.” When she traps another little girl into playing a game, Christina says, “It’s not for fun that we play it, but because it’s necessary to play it.” As an adult, Christina is no less strange. She finds a companion when someone she has never met before comes to visit her and, upon the woman’s second visit, Christina says, “I think it would be a very fine idea if you were to make this your home.” This idea comes in the middle of a conversation about guardian angels and just after Christina has decided she does not care much for Miss Gamelon, her visitor and future housemate. It’s as if the characters make decisions and say things just to see what will come of it, sort of a way to experiment through life. Christina might have been thinking her life was boring and lonely with no companion and thought it might be interesting to have someone live with her whom she does not know well and does not like.

We soon meet the other “serious lady,” Mrs. Copperfield. We get some insight as to what’s coming when Mrs. Copperfield says about traveling by sea, “it’s boring. It’s the same thing all the time. The colors are beautiful of course.” What follows is the many adventures of Mrs. Copperfield as she tries to find things that are not the same all the time, including choosing to stay in a seedy hotel instead of the stuffy, upscale one, and making a friend of a drunken prostitute. The prostitute, Pacifica, may have a tragic life, but Mrs. Copperfield finds it fascinating and wants nothing more than to be with Pacifica all the time. Mrs. Copperfield’s personality can perhaps be summed up in her thoughts from one paragraph: “She was suffering as much as she had ever suffered before because she was going to do what she wanted to do. But it would not make her happy. She did not have the courage to stop from doing what she wanted to do. She knew that it would not make her happy, because only the dreams of crazy people come true.” Why is it that what Mrs. Copperfield wants to do is not what makes her happy? Does she choose on purpose to do things that make her suffer, then go around feeling miserable that she is suffering? This short passage sums up the way in which much of the strangeness plays out in the novel. Characters contradict themselves and seem to have no idea what is really going on around them.

Even through all the unusual character actions and dialogue, the lack of real plot does not hinder the enjoyment of the novel. Bowles has a way of writing that keeps the reader wondering what in the world the characters might do next. It is not unlikely that a character will suddenly change her mind mid-stride. What is likely is that no matter what the characters choose, they will make themselves or someone else miserable. Why does Bowles choose to write in such a seemingly disconcerting way? Does Bowles wish to say that none of us has a sense of what happiness is, that we go through life making choices just to see what might happen, without thinking through those choices? Does she mean to point out the absurdity of human nature and how people can act in ways that seem utterly pointless and self-destructive? Perhaps these ladies have a secret desire for misery and for tearing apart the things that might bring them true happiness. Perhaps only when things are difficult and they are suffering do they find life interesting.

Is contentment boring? This seems to be what the characters believe. It is better to be interested and suffering than to be happy and bored. This idea in itself is strange, but if it keeps the reader interested, this is something a writer can learn from Bowles. Every story does not need a major plotline. Much like Seinfeld was a show “about nothing,” it is possible to write a successful novel where the characters are the plot. Where the reader keeps flipping the page just to see how far the “serious ladies” will go, how far into destruction they can slip. The characters are unique and highly unpredictable. They will make a reader question the motives of the characters in the novel, but maybe also their own motives in life. Are we bored with happiness, or do we crave stimulation so much that even having contentment isn’t worth being bored? Bowles writes in a way that forces our attention to every word and action of the characters, leaving description secondary. She shows us how character flaws can be highlighted and can become the entire story.

My rating: 3 out of 5 = liked it

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