The Spectacular, by Zoe Whittal, is the story of three women who struggle with the demands placed on women as mothers. The story begins with Missy, a cellist and rock band musician who is desperately seeing a tubal ligation before heading out on her first tour when she is twenty-two. She wants to be sexually free and free of the fear of pregnancy. The second woman is Carola, living at an ashram as it’s collapsing into a public sex scandal. She sees the daughter she left behind when she fled her marriage and commune on the cover of a music magazine. Then there is Ruth, Carola’s mother-in-law and Missy’s grandmother who at the age of 83 discovers what all the fuss is about with sex. She is diagnosed with cancer and wants to fight it on her own terms by returning to Turkey to die. Like Missy, all the women face the question of whether to have a child or have an abortion, even when it was illegal in Canada.
The story progresses like a beaded necklace, alternating the narrative between Missy and Nicola, first in the late 90s with a centerpiece, a lavalier of chapters about Ruth, and then another string of alternating chapters about Nicola and Missy in the present. It follows their journey as they find themselves and each other.
I enjoyed The Spectacular. I cared about the women, even though at times they seemed determined to ruin their lives. The underlying theme of what it means to be a woman in a world with certain expectation is fertile ground. Missy, Nicola, and Ruth are not your typical women, in fiction or reality, but their dilemmas are all too common. Clearly, these three generations of women struggle to liberate themselves from expectations, each in their own way.
These are deeply realized and individual characters. Perhaps that is why I sruggled a bit to keep reading at the beginning. Missy is just so determined to be as free as the men in the band, she is a jerk, reckless with other’s feelings, determined to reject intimacy, and heedless of the consequences. In a way, she acted like a stereotype. The Missy in the present is so much nicer. It might seem easy to judge Nicola at first, a mother leaving behind a six-year-old child, but Whittal deftly makes her decision understandable.
The Spectacular is the second book by Whittal I have read. She seems to be drawn to the deeply volatile issues of modern society and writes about them in ways that fill in the black and white political fault lines with all the shades of gray.
The Spectacular will be released on September 14th. I received an e-galley through NetGalley.