Arts·Shelfies

What if we allowed ourselves the space — and grace — to change? This novel asks us to do just that

Zoe Whittall's The Spectacular follows three women across generations as they learn to accept their own paths.

Zoe Whittall's The Spectacular follows three women across generations as they learn to accept their own needs

A butterfly emerges from its chrysalis. (Andreas Solaro/AFP via Getty Images)

Shelfies is a column by writer Alicia Elliott that looks at arts and culture through the prism of the books on her shelf.

The first time I went to therapy and it actually helped (which was, unfortunately, not the first time I went to therapy), my therapist told me I had something referred to as "nice girl syndrome." The term comes from a book by Beverly Engel called The Nice Girl Syndrome: Stop Being Manipulated and Abused — and Start Standing Up For Yourself, and is used to describe women who felt their societal and social value was tied up in being perceived as "nice girls." This often means that they have a hard time saying no to people, particularly those in positions of authority over them, and find themselves pressured into agreeing to do things they didn't want to do.

Before I left my therapist's office that day, reeling with new realizations, she hastily handed me a piece of paper from her desk. At the top, it read, "Personal Bill of Rights." Among the list of affirmations were the following:

  • I have the right to be respected.
  • I have permission to put myself first and ask for what I need, even if others choose to feel hurt.
  • I have permission to change my mind, even when to do so may appear illogical to others.
  • I have permission to say no to demands or requests without feeling guilty.
  • I have permission to make mistakes or screw up and still feel acceptable.
  • I have the right not to take responsibility for someone else. I have permission to do less than I am humanly capable of doing.

The last one, in particular, got me. Even as I read it, I felt tears welling up in my eyes, because I had not, until then, allowed myself to ever do less than I was humanly capable of doing — and the proof was in the burnout, depression and utter exhaustion that had compelled me to go to therapy in the first place.

I still have this piece of paper stuck to my refrigerator, which is perhaps why it came so readily to my mind as I read Zoe Whittall's latest novel, The Spectacular. Each of the three women who take turns narrating this novel are struggling with the ways society expects them to be "nice girls" — to do exactly what's expected of them without being able to consider what decisions are actually best for them, and without being allowed space to change their minds.

Missy Alamo, member of up-and-coming indie rock band The Swearwolves, is trying to get her tubes tied so she can live out her rock 'n' roll fantasies without worrying about accidentally becoming a mother. This eventually becomes complicated when she realizes her own estranged mother, Carola, has turned against the cult she originally left Missy and her father for. Meanwhile, Missy's paternal grandmother, a single mother who struggled throughout her life, is planning to return home to Turkey to live out her last days after a cancer diagnosis — but only after she reunites Missy and Carola. All of these women, despite the differences in their life circumstances and personalities, have been trapped by what's expected of them by society and those around them. They carry the weight of failed expectations in their very marrow, filling them with varying degrees of self-loathing and shame for daring to put themselves first, for daring to change their minds when their circumstances begin to to turn on them.

Throughout every situation Whittall cleverly sets up in this novel, she asks: are women — particularly mothers — really allowed to put themselves and their needs first? To stop being "nice girls" and still be seen as acceptable? Even nearly 60 years after Betty Friedan published her monumental second-wave feminist book The Feminine Mystique, even after most families require both parents to have an income to stay financially afloat, there still seems to be immense societal pressure on women to find the most meaning in their lives in their roles as wives, mothers and homemakers.

Missy's determination to not be a mother and have her tubes tied seems very entangled with her feelings about her own mother — what mothers are and should be, how motherhood can be a toll on women, and whether she herself can actually put her hypothetical child first when all notions of "freedom" she sees seem to say that motherhood is a trap, of sorts. But it's a trap that no doctor will let her escape. Meanwhile, Missy's bandmate Billy gets a vasectomy from the first doctor he sees. "I told him I was the lead singer in a band. He got it immediately," Billy tells Missy, laughing. "Isn't that sexist?"

What's most surprising — and, in my opinion, most refreshing — about The Spectacular is what happens to the rough-and-tumble Missy in Book Two, which takes place 16 years later. Instead of trying to get her tubes tied, this time Missy is at a fertility clinic trying to determine whether she can still have a baby. After living life without a child, and fulfilling all her younger self's hopes and dreams, she's still unsure what she wants. "I could see that child-free future clearly," Missy thinks, "and it looked like happiness and freedom, songwriting and movie scores, friendships, travel, independence. I liked my life the way it was, mostly, didn't I? Lately, I was never sure how to answer this question."

For a book that is so concerned with Missy not being a mother in the first half of the book, this switch no doubt comes as a surprise to many readers — for some, perhaps even a betrayal. Looking at the Goodreads reviews of The Spectacular, for example, it's clear that some readers didn't respond well to their expectations of Missy being challenged. But when I read it, I remembered one of the affirmations on my fridge that had, until then, seemed unimportant to me: "I have permission to change my mind, even when to do so may appear illogical to others." It's true — once you have set up certain expectations of yourself in the minds of others, they don't usually respond positively when you act outside of them. I remembered, for example, when I stopped saying "yes" to every request ever posed to me, how those who expected me to say "yes" and had not prepared for a world where I might say "no" seemed stricken, frustrated, angry with me.

A book like this — where every character, flawed as they may be, not only changes but lets go of old resentments to make way for their own growth — gives me hope.- Alicia Elliott

This resistance to even the idea of a woman character changing her mind later in life is especially peculiar when you consider that most plotlines in books, movies and TV are constructed to chart a protagonist's change from who they were before the story started to who they become by its end. Change is literally baked into plot, just like change is baked into each of our lives. I don't personally know any people who have not changed in 16 years in some way, and I doubt many others do, either. It is through witnessing change, both in fiction and real life, that we understand its importance and transformative power — and make room for ourselves and others to grow.

What would it mean to accept that people can change their minds in these fundamental ways? And if we can't conceive of a way for ourselves and others to hold the complexity required to allow for and accept change, even in fiction, what hope do any of us have for a future that increasingly seems like it will require great changes and sacrifices from all of us?

A book like this — where every character, flawed as they may be, not only changes but lets go of old resentments to make way for their own growth — gives me hope. "We all go from day to day, and our future is undefined," Whittall writes. "But isn't it always?"

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alicia Elliott is a Tuscarora writer living in Brantford, Ontario. She is the author of A Mind Spread Out on the Ground (Penguin Random House, 2019).

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