Several weeks ago, I cleared off part of a bookshelf, and then took a shopping bag full of paperbacks to my local used book store. My idea was to get organized, with the bonus of receiving a little cash for books I probably wouldn’t reread. Unfortunately, the bookstore owner said they don’t give cash any more but give credit instead – which meant I’d be bringing home more books! But the good news is that one of the books I found was The Longings of Women by Marge Piercy.
This book tells the stories of three women whose lives intersect. The main character, Leila Landsman, is a college professor and an expert on abused women who has written several books on the subject. When her publisher urges her to write about Becky Burgess, a young woman who will soon go on trial for murdering her husband, she accepts the assignment.
For years Leila’s theater-director husband has had serial love affairs with ingénues in his cast, with the understanding that once the play has closed, he’ll return home. But when Leila’s husband’s latest mistress becomes pregnant and then her best friend dies, Leila takes a close look at her life and doesn’t like what she sees.
Accused murderer Becky Burgess’s story is seamlessly told both in flashbacks and in present time. Raised in poverty, she has devoted her life to becoming successful and schemes to marry a man she believes will be her ticket to affluence. However, things don’t go as smoothly as she planned, and her marriage falls apart when her husband loses his job.
A third woman’s story is woven into the plot – that of Mary Burke, a woman in her early sixties who works for a janitorial service and who cleans Leila’s house. Though she lived an upper-middle-class life before her divorce, Mary is now secretly homeless, sleeping in church basements, abandoned buildings, and her clients’ homes whenever they are out of town. Mary’s daily struggle to eat, sleep, keep clean, stay healthy, and remain safe, as well as her shame over her homelessness, was portrayed by Piercy in very real scenes. When a series of events destroys Mary’s carefully maintained marginal existence, her secret homelessness is revealed.
Although the three women are strikingly different, they all want the same things: respect, love, and the security of a home. Piercy demonstrates their similarities through details about each woman’s world.
Although The Longings of Women was copyrighted in 1994, the story felt fresh and could have taken place today. I definitely recommend this book. It’s one I will read again.
FYI: Marge Piercy is a poet (Circles on the Water is in its fifteenth printing), a memoirist (Sleeping with Cats), and an author of fiction (17 novels.) Here’s a link to her website: http://www.margepiercy.com/