Review: Fay Weldon, She May Not Leave (2006).
In her twenty-seventh novel Weldon once again creates a world in which women wield the scepter and men are disposable. Leading lady Hettie has a rather modern view on family life. She recently gave birth to daughter Kitty and though most women enjoy their maternity leave in which they get the chance to bond with their newborn child, Hettie is not the domestic type. Therefore the boredom that comes along with the housewifely behavior that is expected from her, drives her crazy. She is dying to get back to work and unsurprisingly she is thrilled when her Get Out Of Jail Free card announces itself in the form of Agnieszka, a Polish young woman who worked as an au-pair for acquaintances of Hettie and her partner Martyn. The reason for her sudden departure there is unclear, but this does not stop Hettie from hiring her.
Quickly life becomes much like it used to be before the baby came, except the house is cleaner, the food better and Kitty happier. But more things have changed: Kitty calls Agnieszka ‘mom’ and – though Hettie doesn’t know – Martyn has fantasies about the babysit. Slowly Hettie becomes redundant in her own house. This does not seem to concern her too much. ‘It’s astonishing how quickly you forget children if they’re not right under your nose,’ she says to her grandmother Frances about her life as a working mother. Frances responds that she has often heard men say this, yet never a woman.
The chapters about Hettie are alternated with chapters written from the perspective of Hettie’s grandmother. Frances doesn’t only provide humorous tales about the olden days and her daily life as the wife of an unemployed artist who is in jail in Rotterdam for smuggling drugs, she also offers another generation’s view on what is happening in Hettie’s home. Even though Frances is not your typical seventy year old woman, she definitely holds more old-fashioned ideas about the situation. Especially when people start confusing Agnieszka for the wife, Frances thinks Agnieszka ought to go: ‘When people start to mistake the maid for the mistress, the misstress should ask the maid to leave.’
But Martyn and Hettie don’t want Agnieszka to leave. In fact they will do anything to keep her. How could they live without her? Who would do the dishes, make late-night snacks and look after Kitty? When the authorities find out about Agnieszka, who is staying in England illegally, Martyn and Hettie are devastated. Especially Hettie doesn’t even dare to think about the horror scenario that awaits her if Agnieszka will leave. Staying home again would naturally mean that she will miss the promotion she is about to get at work. Hettie’s rather drastic answer to this problem provokes Frances to say: ‘She’s just like my mother: face her with a dilemma and she comes up with a disastrous solution.’
Yes, it seems a little cliché: husband falls in love with au-pair, wife has single-handedly created a downward spiral in which she becomes more and more needess. Yet this novel is everything but cliché: as the plot unfolds it becomes clear that nothing is what it seems to be, which makes that the reader grows increasingly curious how things will work out. The unexpected ending does not dissapoint and proves once again that Weldon is a magnificent feminist writer. Between the covers all kinds of preceptions about men and women are denounced. By comparing Frances’ life to Hattie’s, the development of the emancipation of women is discribed. According to this book, men are ignorant creatures who think everything simply happens to them, while actually women have it all figured out: they are smart and powerfull and capable of controlling the thing men call faith or coincidence. She May Not Leave is a brilliant piece of writing that strokes perfectly with Weldon’s well-known motto: ‘Men are irrelevant.’