In 1930s Paris, where one cheap hotel room is very like another, a young woman is teaching herself indifference. She has escaped personal tragedy and has come to France to find courage and seek independence. She tells herself to expect nothing, especially not kindness, least of all from men. Tomorrow, she resolves, she will dye her hair blonde. Jean Rhys creates the powerfully modern portrait of Sophia Jansen, whose emancipation is far more painful and complicated than she could expect, but whose confession is flecked with triumph and elation.
Much of our discussion revolved around the narrator’s mental state, as this is primarily what the novel concerns itself with. We meet Sasha in 1930s’ Paris, a place she associates with happier times, but it is immediately obvious how displaced and notably at odds she is in the environment now. Sasha sits uneasy in her own skin, not belonging anywhere, or with anyone, living hand-to-mouth and stumbling from one rented apartment to another, terribly self-conscious and fearful. Her soul seems crushed and we could feel the weight of her depression and quiet desperation right through the pages, but only found out why she has reached such a state of vulnerability and utter hopelessness much later in the novel. Or perhaps not utter hopelessness; we noted Sasha’s adolescent attempts to self-heal, to achieve some modicum of happiness and self-worth with a new haircut, a stylish outfit, or a room with light. She has little sputters of hope that a cosmetic plaster can cover up the gaping wounds in her soul, which we know, of course, are destined to fail. Her inability to “pick herself up” initially frustrated some readers, but by the end of our discussion, after we had considered the factors that would push someone so far down a black hole and whether we would all have the mental tools to deal with these challenges, we concurred that Sasha deserved some sympathy and understanding.
We all agreed what an utterly depressing novel this was. We discussed, at length, the reasons why Sasha seemed lacking in emotional resilience and the basic ability to look after herself. Although this was a time when more and more women had careers, Sasha’s patriarchal upbringing and then marriage meant she never learned to be independent, to budget, to build an identity of her own. We weren’t sure how this novel sat within a feminist reading; on the one hand Sasha is gadding about Paris alone, drinking too much, wasting money and almost sleeping with gigolos. On the other hand she has decided to slowly drink herself to death because she has lost her child, her husband and her home, and therefore has nothing…surely a woman is more than a wife and mother? Much is made of her fading, ageing looks; the thought of not being sexually appealing to men seems like another nail in the coffin to her. Overall, a short novel with much to analyse and feel, but rather too depressing to enjoy.
We gave Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys an overall rating of 6 out of 10, with scores ranging from 5 to 8.
Rita, Carnegie Library Book Group