In 1971 or maybe '72, Rosalie Hayes wore a pair of red, white, and blue pants to school. On an older girl, they might have been called hip-huggers, but Rosalie was a good ten years away from that. She wore these pants on a Wednesday. This was a bold fashion choice. Prior to this, the girls of our school were only allowed to wear pants on Fridays (an early incarnation of what grew up to be Casual Friday). The rest of us played it safe with double-knits while she veered dangerously close to denim.
On the lower side of Venus Avenue, Mary Alexander declared herself a hippie. She was older and more sophisticated, and I wasn't about to ask her to define terms. I drew a few conclusions: hippies had long hair, wore purple pants and silver POW/MIA bracelets, and spent a lot of time with motorcycles. Surrounding us was the war and Richard Nixon (my grandmother was firmly opposed to the man -- he was, apparently, a lousy tipper). I was still trying to comprehend that someone had walked on the moon.
My mother divorced my father. This act, actually, wasn't nearly as traumatic as the fact that I was the only kid I knew who didn't have the two-parent thing happening. It was probably the only time in my life that I was ahead of the curve. For my mother, it was like someone had nullified a contract right after she'd fulfilled all of her obligations. She had been raised to get married and have kids. She had the kids, but the rest of the scene was gone.
These are the things I carried with me as I read Mutual Life & Casualty, which begins in the early 1970s. It was a strange time to be a girl, and I can only imagine how incomprehensible it was to be a woman. My mother, and the mothers of my friends, was part of the last generation of females for whom marriage and family was considered the only career path. Right behind them was an entire generation who understood that there are choices in life. Despite the fact that vestiges of this era remain in our world (just for fun, try being childless by choice), many of my peers simply don't understand the world of this novel.
The novel, more or less, revolves around three females: Hannah, the bright child; Carolyn, the lost child; and Naomi, their mother, the one who will never be happy. Other women filter in and out of the story, all caught off balance by this new world: a teacher who has only the classroom filling her life; the newly divorced woman who can't put her world into perspective; the women scouring Loehmann's for bargains. As I read the book, I wanted to shout, "Get a life, lady!" Then I realized these were women for whom the very notion of life was shifting. There were choices, there are always choices, and I won't suggest that men had it easier when it came to staying with their families or leaving, but I think the burden rested with the women. I know the burden rested with the women. I saw it happen.
Mutual Life & Casualty (truly a brilliant title) covers the lives of the Kahn family from the early 70s to the mid-1990s. The three major characters stumble through their lives, and it is painful to see how one parent's perspective influences the attitudes of his or her children. You can really warp a young mind if you are not careful. The war between Naomi and Daniel, the Kahn patriarch, isn't as much about their incompatibility as it Naomi's desire to win. She never realizes the depth of the wounds she inflicts on the casualties.
She is also one of the most flawed characters I've read in a while. Naomi doesn't possess the selflessness necessary to be a mother. She uses her children to further her own ill-defined agenda. She's constantly searching for fulfillment, but wouldn't realize she'd reached her goal if she fell over it. The surface carries more meaning for her than the interior. When she decides to do battle, she takes everyone down with her.
Women weren't the only ones changing. The father in this story is doing what he was raised to do. He works at this job, makes good money, and interacts with his family in his own way. His world is becoming different; one suspects there are women working in his office, women who are starting to influence the business -- and he wasn't given a manual for the new world either.
Elizabeth Poliner employs the novel-in-stories approach, and this is not always successful. It rarely is in novels. Character arcs must often be inferred and some characters are left hanging (most notably the teacher) or underdeveloped. The work doesn't have a real protagonist, though early on, one feels guided toward Hannah. By the end, we understand that it's Caroline who undergoes the most profound growth. I was hoping Carolyn's character would complete the circle -- she'd been poisoned against her father by Naomi -- by reconciling with Daniel, but I'm a sucker for happy endings.
Wendi Kauffman described this title as a quiet book. I'd describe it more as a desperate book. Characters are trapped in worlds they didn't necessarily choose, and they don't possess the skills to find the hidden key. I think many readers will apply modern mores to the alien culture inhabited by these readers. The early seventies haven't really been explored in literature, not from the perspective of women, and if we remember the day Rosalie wore her insanely bold-patterned pants, Mutual Life & Casualty resonates long after you finish reading it.