Madeleine Davies

What makes women happy? (clue: It’s not Mel Gibson)

In Books on March 2, 2013 at 11:10 pm

Book review of “What Makes Women Happy” by Fay Weldon

Reading Fay Weldon is a bit like getting advice from your Mum’s blunt but kind friend. The one that’s known you since you were born and is familiar with your more unappealing habits. Or submitting to the wisdom of the friend who, rather than telling you what you want to hear, confirms what your better self has already intimated. “Twelve pairs of shoes are fine, but twenty-four are pushing it” she suggests in “What Makes Women Happy”, the book she wrote in 2006, aged 75. If you think you’ve offended a friend, phone them, a text just won’t do.

Not all of the advice is this prosaic and some of it is downright shocking (Weldon heads it up as “irresponsible advice”). If sex is no longer part of your relationship, then why not seek out “another friend”? Not too many questions will be asked if you go away for the odd weekend, she writes. Want a baby but it isn’t happening naturally? Follow the example of her friend Clara, whose husband is still blissfully unaware that their first child is the product of a liaison with a “drunken medical student”. Oh, and when it comes to orgasms: “Just fake”. Some feminists are likely to take issue with her suggestion that “The fight for gender equality is bad for the looks”.

This sort of counsel is often the stuff of provocative columns in newspapers, written by professional contrarians and prompting thousands of online reader comments. You wonder how much of it is written tongue in cheek. Take this example from the chapter on food: “Remember what research tells us: that skinny women earn more than fat women, marry richer husbands, have more lovers, go to smarter restaurants and die with more jewellery. They wear more designer clothes than fat women do and look far, far, better in them. So be thin.” Is this to be taken literally? Maybe. Or maybe it’s really a dig at “research”. Or skinny women. Or materialist values. Much of the rest of the book suggests that there is more to life than collecting fancy bracelets.

Weldon’s age and life – she’s been married three times, discovered that one husband was having an affair with her children’s nanny and even boasts an encounter with the afterlife (she’s not entirely sure she’s headed for heaven) – make you inclined to hear her out. She’s a novelist and a lot of her advice is backed up by tales of various “friends” for whom it all worked out well (or not, as the case may be). She’s also very honest – admitting that the opening pages were written from the spare room after a “domestic row”.

The answer to the book’s title, is, in order: sex, food, friends, family, shopping and chocolate and each one gets a chapter ending in a “parable” illustrating Weldon’s teaching. These stories are reminiscent of the writing of other female novelists – AS Byatt, Margaret Drabble and, particularly, Iris Murdoch in their emphasis on virtue. The female characters are complex, rounded, carefully shaded. Their fates are didactic. In fact, the central message of the book sounds a slightly old-fashioned note: “Be good and you’ll be happy. Be happy and you’ll be good”. Weldon has little time for women who have swallowed some of the dictums she despises in modern culture: that “you’re worth it” or that our feelings are paramount. “If you feel bad about it don’t do it” is the blunt advice, extending to eating to excess to sleeping with your friend’s boyfriend.

Yet the bar isn’t set so very high. The important thing, if you fail at the latter, she suggests, is not to do it again. And pray that she doesn’t find out. Porn is not something women should worry about, but like a “dummy” that helps men “get through the day”.  For Weldon, “we are all still creatures of the cave, although we live in loft apartments…Unless we are very strong indeed, physiology wins”.

The passages I enjoyed most were those that sketch the female psyche. The “brutal” answer to what makes women happy is, Weldon writes, “nothing, not for more than ten minutes at a time”. Her illustration of the woman enjoying pleasure only for anxiety and guilt to follow hot on its heels, feels very familiar. Her advice on “free floating anxiety” – the sort that isn’t attached to a specific problem but haunts your thoughts – is compassionate and practical (never underestimate the benefits of a milky drink before bed). Weldon is also particularly skilled at writing about female friendships. Her advice that “You can do without partners, husbands, lovers, children, jobs and money, so long as you have good friends” would have Carrie Bradshaw and co cheering.

It’s ultimately an uplifting book, acknowledging the scarier aspects of life but, with the wisdom of age, suggesting that we need not live in fear of them. If certain passages sound harsh, they are tempered with empathy. Like a conversation with that blunt friend, it’s a bracing encounter.

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