Saturday, March 10, 2012

About face by Carole Howard

Let me begin this review by saying I don't like the genre. I find women's fiction and romances annoying. That said, who in publishing has not spent hard time with the bodice-rippers? And I actually adapted a science fiction story of mine for a romance magazine. With this disclaimer, I want to say that About face is surprisingly high-minded and romance is but a grounding subtext to a portrait of a successful yet unfulfilled woman in a mid-life crisis. Ruth Talbot is caught between her outer role as a high-level exec at a cosmetic company and her inner self, the young woman in the Peace Corp who worked and lived in an African village. And this is no "white man's burden" experience. The author, who's lived in African countries, shows how Ruth is nurtured by the spirit of the community, as much as she brings vegetables to their diet, sanitation, and medicine. Her youthful privation was shared by Vivian, her best friend, and another Peace Corp volunteer, David, who later becomes her husband. The book alternates between Ruth's memories and her present job at Mimosa Corp, where she deals with a new boss who wants her gone and doesn't share her values about "doing good," and a jealous backstabbing office mate. When her husband decides to take an early retirement and wants her to join him, she's thrown into a malstrom of uncertainty. Then at a benefit, she bumps into Vivian, the long lost Peace Corps friend. Vivian and her husband Carlos are Ruth's road not taken. And much of the book has to with her processing the experience of maturity. Her son grown, with enough money to retire, she contemplates her life as a corporate warrior and decides to introduce a radical cosmetics line, which celebrates the beauty of mature women, with products that make her look not young but her better self. It's called About Face. She must fight her boss and negative media images to bring it to market. Her personal crisis is about whether she should say goodbye to her business world, while involved in the project of her career to explore an unknown future. A support group of friends, ranging in age but all seekers, sustain her with searching queries that allow her to determine her purpose. And as she renews her friendship with Vivian, who works in a shelter for abused women,she comes to see what it is to feel purpose without the validation of money and status. And there are drawbacks in the couple's poverty and hardened political stances. Ruth's talent as an entrepreneur and her belief in capitalism and money being used for good are compromises for her friends. But in the end, they join forces to better the lives and self-esteem of women; sometimes more beautiful in a very different way than when young. This book is all about the emotional growth that comes with time, making a person more what they really are. Think of a photographic image developing in an acid tray. It takes time and stirring for the image to completely come to life. I has a texture not possible in digital photos. Ruth Talbot's saga is like that. My problem with this book again is the genre. It has for me too many cliches, like hot flashes, which while probably enjoyed by the audience for women's fiction,made me wince. Comedians also use recognizable traits for a put-down of aging women. And you hear it in every bar in our land. Culturally, I dislike masking misogony as a joke. Of course this author is simply showing women's shared physical reality and how this woman compensates for it at the office. My other problem is the happy ending. It's plausible but a bit too perfect for me. The rest of the book has more realism, so it could use that at the end. But in woman's fiction, writers create women leading lives real enough we can identify with, yet with outcomes that unlike ours are more happily resolved. This is the fantasy of the genre. I prefer Edith Wharton.