“You see through this; understand I was too naïve, even if you factor in that I was young. The ‘80s were not a time when women had to put up with male tyrants. No woman had to fit herself around a man’s schedule. To do so was lazy, as well as demeaning. But I didn’t introspect; I didn’t ask enough questions. I expressed passivity by pretending to myself that whatever I did for Neil was charming, old-fashioned dutifulness. More embarrassing still was the fact that I let him support me, that I had delusions of becoming a major essayist (In this culture? as Neil would say).
If you think for a minute, you might guess what happened next, because clichés so often befall vain people.”
Do not be deceived by the cover—Walks With Men is no poorly written piece of chick lit. Anne Beattie, the author, teaches in UVA’s highly regarded MFA program and is an O. Henry and Pen Award-winning author. (Plus, Miranda July endorsed her on the back cover, and if that doesn’t make her acceptable for the standard indie book snob, what does?)
The main character of our novella, Jane, has recently finished her education at Harvard with honors, has become decidedly anti-establishment, and is of interest to the press because she decided to tell the school on graduation day where they could shove it—in front of God and Jimmy Carter. She has these plans to live on a farm in Vermont with her granola boyfriend Ben and his goats, but the professor that interviews her—arrogant, twice her age, and sure he has a stockpile of wisdom to dispense upon her—wins her over. They have an arrangement where she can ask him any question she likes and he must answer, as long as no one knows about their relationship. (Cue in ominous music here.) He supports her in an apartment while he writes nonfiction novels and she “works” gathering research for him and not doing much else. While their relationship seems to exist in a carefully sealed vacuum, the rest of Neil’s life does not, and the things that she does not know eventually come out and overwhelm her.
Like all men, all people, while Neil is quirky and interesting and loveable, he’s deeply flawed. The complications he tries to hide from Jane but ultimately brings into her life are many and she starts to see over time that his wisdom is limited to superficial things—where to have sex, what to do when depressed, what to do with leftovers from restaurants, how to take your drink, where to buy your scarves. How to be in a relationship without steamrolling the person you love, on the other hand, might be foreign to him. As their relationship progresses (don’t worry, no spoilers) she begins to have issues with self-importance and direction that seem to travel back directly to the fact that she has allowed Neil to take care of her for so long. Characters with strange subplots: her ex that’s high on yoga and love, her gay neighbor that’s been struggling from mental health issues left over from Vietnam, his lover who wants Jane to watch them have sex, all help her work through her loneliness and get a hold of who she is and what it is she does and doesn’t want. Jane isn’t always without her own issues, however, and we see that illustrated through her issues with her mother and closest female friend, Jan, an obvious foil without much going for her but a pointing finger.
As a female, I can appreciate a piece of writing like this for a variety of reasons—it was literary, it was accessible to me despite the fact that I’m from a different generation and mindset than her main character(mostly due to the universal relationship issues Beattie touches on), and because Beattie trusts her audience and doesn't pander to them. Beattie gives female readers the best of both worlds.
All in all, a good read.