The Woman Destroyed by Simone de Beauvoir: Short Story Collection Review
Overview: The book was first published in 1967, so it's by far the oldest book I've read by choice since I read Jane Austen in middle school. Classics assigned in grade school largely left a bad taste in my mouth, and I've never figured out how to decipher which ones actually deserve to stand the test of time. (If you'd like to give me more recommendations, I liked Rebecca, Pride and Prejudice, and Frankenstein most). I have a weird relationship with things made before the '90s unless they're from the 1800s because I have no real context for what I think they'll sound like or feel like. A serious failure of the education system is that every history class I've ever taken stopped around 1900 and never covered any recent history besides random, isolated events. Since The Woman Destroyed has suddenly become trendy amongst the lit fic online communities, I figured I'd hop on the bandwagon and give it a try.
As a 19 year old girl (at the time I wrote this review) in 2023 (probably not the intended target audience), here's my thoughts.
For one, I'm shocked by how little this book shows it's age. Besides the occasional use of off-putting, awful language that aren't in any decent person's modern vocabulary, the only other glaring place where I could place the time was in the details around how landlines worked back then and the mysterious phone bell. More than anything, it made me realize how little the world has changed even though we're made to feel like the landscape is entirely different now. It's hard to say that all that much progress has been made, at least on the domestic, emotional scale, in comparison to today. I get that 1967 wasn't that long ago, but at the same time, my parents weren't even alive then, so it feels wrong that this book still reads decently contemporary.
Another first experience in reading this book was that it's my first book by a French author I think I've ever read and my second translated book ever, the first fiction one. I really enjoyed it and getting a glimpse into another culture that really, in the elemental sense this book looked through, was extraordinarily relatable. I've found that I enjoy reading translated works quite a bit, and I'm definitely curious to pick up more in the future. Overall: 4
The Age of Discretion: Honestly, I read this book over a longer period of time than usual during a very stressful time, and I don't remember many of this story's specific details. I liked it, and I remember finding the perspective fascinating. Like all of these stories, this novella focuses on a woman who is reaching a new phase of her life as her kids have grown up and her job raising the kids and keeping the house running is fundamentally shifting. It's a portrait we don't often get in books, and my heart ached as I read.
The Monologue: I almost quit reading over this story. But I liked the first one quite a bit and knew that the most popular of these stories and the one it was named for came at the end, so I figured I needed to just push through. It didn't get better, and I'd honestly recommend skipping the middle story. It's written in a stream of conscious style where the details are confused and stirred up into a frenzy that makes it difficult to parse out what's happening well enough to get invested. From what I gather, this is the emotional breakdown of a woman who lost a child a few years ago, has been through a divorce, and is now losing her second marriage. She's clearly in a position that would put anyone in a fraught place, but the way it's communicated is entirely unpleasant in a way that if it's a tool to convey her distress just falls flat.
The Woman Destroyed: There's a reason this is the title story. It's the one I enjoyed the most, and it had the most page turning urgency that got me to make time to try to speed through it to discover how it ends. Even though this is a low plot, feelings heavy book, the emotions are so big and consequential that it gives that feeling of life or death stakes. The story is told through diary entries that evolve over time as Monique slowly comes to learn that her husband is having an affair and then proceeds to be ripped apart by the waves of emotion that come with him trying to maintain his marriage while openly carrying on with a divorced lawyer in their friend circle. Monique struggles with comparing herself to this other woman while also mining through her twenty year marriage for the moment it fell apart and having doubts about how she raised her children.
Monique puts the entire demise of her marriage on herself instead of her cheating husband, which is absolutely wrenching but sadly honest to reality. Her friends are mostly there to get the drama, and they make excuses for her husband and encourage her to be tolerant and compliant as a way to win him back. The novella is incredibly sad and honestly frustrating in that the husband gets so little flack in comparison to what she goes through, but it's written in a way that you can see the reality but also understand why she's so intent on making it work with her husband.
All three stories show the darker side of motherhood and choosing to be a stay at home mom that society, to this day, loves to tamp down. I'm impressed to see a book of this nature came out in 1967 (again, not that I have much context of what that time was like) and has stayed in print just because we still struggle with being honest about the nuanced realities while instead leaning into debates over whether women can "have it all." These are the stories of women who chose not to, who loved their families with every drop in them, and who had their fates decided for them that reveal how difficult it is to keep an independent sense of self and any lasting autonomy when you're day in and day out reality is caring for others. It was thought provoking and bluntly honest in a way I deeply appreciated.
I'd love to know what sparked this book's revival to become the new, trendy accessory book of the season (maybe it got reissued with a new cover?), but it's cool to see a title like this getting celebrated.
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