Small Changes, by Marge Piercy*****

SmallChangesPiercyThis title was originally published in 1973 during the second wave of feminism that followed the US Civil Rights movement, and then the anti-war movement against the US invasion of Vietnam. Marge Piercy is a prominent veteran writer who spoke to women’s issues during that time and in years to follow. She doesn’t need my review, and neither does Open Road Integrated Media, I suspect, but my thanks go to them and Net Galley for letting me reread this wonderful novel digitally. I received this copy free in exchange for an honest review, but the reader should also know that I came to this galley with a strong, strong affinity for Piercy’s work already, and my bookshelves are lined with paperbacks and hard cover copies of her books. But they are thick and sometimes heavy to the arthritic hand, and it’s a joy to be able to read them on a slender electronic reader. It was released digitally April 12, 2016 and is available for purchase now.

In 1973, many young adults had cast off the fetters of the impossibly repressive social relations of the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Their parents, on the other hand, were frequently entrenched in the mores that had been with them all of their lives, and felt threatened by the new ideas—some of which were actually pretty stupid—that many Boomer era teens and twenty-somethings embraced. Some notions that were new then are ones most of us now take for granted. Most of western civilization is no longer troubled, for example, by the idea that a woman may want to have a career, and that some women don’t want to have children. Most parents no longer speak of marrying a daughter as a way to transfer the expense of feeding and sustaining her from themselves to a man.

But in 1973, these social mores were still really prevalent. So to readers younger than fifty, or perhaps younger than forty, some of Piercy’s text is going to appear to be over-the-top, a vast exaggeration. It isn’t. And I have to thank Piercy for the gift of her insights, which came to me while I was a young woman still determining what was and was not acceptable in my own relationships.

The sly way Piercy makes her most prominent point is in following the lives of women, two in particular: Beth, who at the story’s outset, is indeed being “married off”, and Miriam, the least-favored child of the family who goes away to school and moves into a series of unconventional relationships. There’s a lot of the cultural flavor of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s here, and Piercy uses her narrative to describe ways in which even the most enlightened women, those seeking to build bonds with other women and support them as they set out to fulfill their dreams, nevertheless find themselves mired in unequal, sometimes physically and emotionally abusive relationships. Women that believe they have liberated themselves by refusing to marry, or by joining a commune and not being monogamous, nevertheless find themselves trapped in destructive situations. Piercy shows us how every woman in her story can see that a good friend is in a bad place; each woman doubts herself first when she starts to reconsider her own entanglements.

It is interesting in hindsight that communal and non-monogamous relationships could be discussed freely, but lesbianism was still so far out on the periphery that not even the most trusted of straight friends were necessarily going to be in on the nature of the coupling. And this is dead accurate given the time period; I was there. And gay sex among men was a mental cobweb to be brushed away. Tran sexuality was still considered a sign of mental illness by nearly everyone, and it isn’t in this book.

Because it deals with relationships and the internal narratives primarily of women, with occasional side-trips into the heads of the men both women encounter, and also of other women Beth and Miriam are close to, this novel is likely to be labeled “Chick Lit”, a genre title I have become increasingly reluctant to use. Think of it this way: how many women have read novels that are entirely about men or one man, and considered what they just read to be relevant and at times, superior literature? And now I have to wonder why, when a book is almost entirely about women or a woman, told from a feminine perspective, it is assumed by so many people that men should not be interested in that literature also?

Note that this tome exceeds 500 pages. The text itself should be accessible to anyone with a high school diploma or equivalency, but not everyone has sufficient stamina to make it through a book of this length. However, if one is on the borderline, and especially if one is a woman interested in evaluating the nature of our most important relationships, this would be a fine place to begin reading longer books.

For those that enjoy reading about this time period, and for those interested in modern feminism as well as the history of American feminist thought, Piercy’s body of work, including this title, should be unmissable.  Her towering feminist presence was a beacon to so many of us, and many of the issues that were so urgent then are still urgent now.

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