Saturday, October 15, 2011

Review: The Bride Stripped Bare by Nikki Gemmell

Nikki Gemmell's The Bride Stripped Bare, published in 2003, is an intimate look at what Betty Friedan in her explosive 1960s research study, The Feminine Mystique, termed "the problem with no name."  An anonymous young bride begins a secret journal, starting with her honeymoon, revealing the truth about marriage.  As she attempts to understand her new role as wife, her marriage begins to unravel around her, and although she is unhappy with her husband at times, she desperately tries to save what they have created together.  Her experiences and musings on the matter of marriage are captured in eloquent yet very frank prose.

The real power of Gemmell's novel, though, is her use of the second person.  The reader is never told the bride's name, and her use of "you" makes it hard for the reader to disentangle the unnamed narrator from herself.  Her experiences and feelings become every woman's experiences and feelings as she tries to locate and staunch the unsettling dissatisfaction in her marriage and her life as "wife."  As demonstrated by Friedan and by the unknown seventeenth century author of the little book on marriage Gemmell's bride constantly references, this unnerving "problem with no name," or the hole in my chest as I tell my husband, is not exclusive to this bride alone.  It is a shared experience among all women that in fictionalized form, Gemmell is able to explore more thoroughly than Friedan's women of the '60s could.

When I think back on my reading of The Bride Stripped Bare, I am reminded of a song by the Eli Young Band entitled "Crazy Girl."  The chorus goes like this: "Crazy girl / Don't you know that I love you / I wouldn't dream of going nowhere / Silly woman / Come here let me hold you / Have I told you lately / I love you like crazy girl."  On the surface, it seems like a sweet reassurance of the singer's love for his significant other; however, calling her a "crazy girl" and "silly woman" only serve to belittle her fears and doubts in her lover.  The artist of this song, as does the bride's husband in Gemmell's novel, pats the woman on the head and dismisses her feelings, saying "there, there - nothing to worry about" instead of taking the time to understand why she is upset and address her specific concerns.  Similarly, when our anonymous narrator tells her husband specifically what she wants in bed, he is amused instead of receiving, and although he complies, he response to her is like that to a kid playing dress up in her mother's clothes - cute but ultimately unrealistic, a role she is not equipped to fulfill just yet.  But is it so crazy for a woman to doubt her lover's faithfulness?  To be reminded that he cares?  To need to be told that she is loved?  And Gemmell's bride has reason to be concerned, her husband may have had an affair with her sexy best friend.  Gemmell's bride begins her long spiral into identity crisis at this point in the novel, culminating in an affair of her own, but what's worse is she no longer has another woman to confide her.  The bride and her mother have had a strained relationship their entire lives, and now she has lost her faith in her best friend.  The battle between her often conflicting responsibilities and desires wages on internally.   

Gemmell offers a cure for the bride's "problem" or "hole in her chest" in the form of a baby.  I, however, was disappointed that her supposed "cure" is to have a child - I may have mentioned elsewhere on this blog that I am sick of the unexpected pregnancy, the pregnancy to save a marriage, or just the plain pregnancy/baby turned my life around plot.  I realize I may offend all current and aspiring mothers here when I say I am a woman who does not (for the foreseeable future) want a child.  In fact, I am so tired of the pregnancy plot that I seriously contemplate not reading or giving up on reading books that employ the thematic use of pregnancy - Gemmell's introduction of the pregnancy plot occurs late in the novel, so I was invested.  The only other novel that springs to mind in which I knowingly accepted the pregnancy as key theme concept was Megan McCafferty's Bumped and that's because McCafferty proves herself to be the master of dystopia in this novel and takes on pregnancy as topic, not to defend or elevate it, but to critically examine its popularity as a plot and media device today. McCafferty knows that dystopia is meant to disturb your view of the future, and she does just that by investigating the impact of social networking sites, teen pregnancy television shows, and the teen pregnancy pact on adolescents in a future society, and what she discovers is unsettling.  But like McCafferty, Gemmell seems to realize that pregnancy is not the solution to the unnamed problem because her novel ends with the bride and her child missing - only her car and her son's stroller at the top of a cliff in England as a clue to their whereabouts.

I am dying to know what happened to her and her child - there was mention of a sequel, but I can't seem to find it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Gemmell's own website.  Any help here would be greatly appreciated!

Best matched with wives, mothers, and lovers at all stages, but beware, the book contains some R-rated lessons.

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