R29 Book Club: Sexual Politics & Single Ladies

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yellow-eyes-crocodilesPhoto: Courtesy of Penguin Books.
Book club, take one — it's on. And we promise, we won't reference Christ figures or homosocial bonds, if we can help it.

In this case, that will be fairly easy, because in finishing Part One of Katherine Pancol's The Yellow Eyes Of Crocodiles, we were mostly struck by the various unraveling relationships in which women were using what are traditionally considered "feminine" wiles to hold on to the men in their lives — all in the hopes of preserving a certain lifestyle. Even the teenage Hortense manages to manipulate and scheme in the interest of self-preservation, perhaps more cunningly than any other woman in the book. The fit she pitches en route to Iris' home for dinner is particularly jarring ("You made my father leave because you're ugly and boring and there's no way I'm going to be like you. I'll do anything to make sure I won't... I don't want to be poor! I hate poor people!"), but also a neat, childish mirror to the same behavior we see in her grandmother and aunt, and separately, in Josiane, her grandfather's mistress.

The only exception to this rule is our "wallflower" protagonist, Joséphine, and she of course gets an earful for letting her unemployed, cheating husband leave. (Side note: In those moments — especially when her daughter turns on her — it's nice to see that a translation can still evoke very real feelings, even when the language feels a little off. Personally, we found ourselves feeling a very visceral rage at the kid, not only for not understanding what a powerful choice Jo was making, but also for being so blind to any ideals of integrity.) Joséphine, the one honest, hard-working character among all the men and women we've met so far, promises to be the ugly duckling who will blossom into a swan over the course of the novel — and, here's hoping that Pancol manages to navigate her there in a way that feels nuanced and authentic, rather than cliché.

But, returning to the women manipulating their men, it's sexual politics at its most overt. And, our favorite passage addressing it is the one where Iris, after learning that her husband might be having an affair with another man, decides she shouldn't confront him about it.

If I left Philippe, I would lose all this beauty. I would have to start all over again. Alone. Iris shuddered at the word alone. Single women made her skin crawl, and there were so many of them! Stressed out and always rushing around, forever on the prowl. Terrifying, the way people live these days, burning themselves out.... Thanks to Philippe — thanks to Philippe's money, that is — she wasn't burning out. In fact, she was trying to blossom. For a while now, she'd been writing. One page a day. No one knew. She locked herself in her office and scribbled words onto sheets of paper. When she wasn't inspired, she doodled. It was slow going.... She tore up almost everything she wrote, but she felt that the work brought some intensity to her life.


Oh boy. Pancol perfectly juxtaposes Iris' need for manufactured intensity and her fear of actually having to work with any level of intensity for something real. Of course she's scared of burning out, or losing her beautiful, leisurely, art-filled life. And of course that art-filled life of not having to work for anything leaves her feeling empty, forcing her to seek out secret writing sessions to fill that void.

Despite her pre-marriage successes as a much-lauded screenwriter, she manages to produce nothing of any value. So, if it's not for a lack of talent, then what is it? Does her failure stem from a lack of urgency and need? It's an interesting idea, but not one we're totally ready to buy. For us, this rolls right in with the cliché that an artist has to be tortured, or in pain, to produce something meaningful. Later in Crocodiles, we're told we'll see Jo produce a brilliant novel that becomes a runaway success — presumably because she's in need, and with her back up against a wall, she can do more and pull her ideas from a more real place.

Which is an entire can of worms — and easily the most fascinating piece of these first three chapters. We're not ready to buy this black-and-white idea that a truly talented woman can't produce inspired work because she leads a charmed life. Plus, what about the pain of her dissolving marriage? Shouldn't she be able to draw from that to fuel her work, anyway?

It's not the first time we've seen this idea presented as fact, and it's entirely possible that we'll learn Pancol is suggesting something different, as we get further into the book. But for now, we're cautiously incredulous of Iris' inability to write.

But, we're sure more than a few of you disagree with us. So please, share your thoughts in the comments. Does an artist need to suffer to achieve brilliance? And, what of the sexual politics in the various relationships here? Reflections of patriarchal values, or something Pancol will use to turn these conventions on their heads? Also, of all the flawed characters in our midst, which ones are the most personally irksome to you?