I thought I would be reading about the current economy when I selected this book. Wrong! Then, when I discovered the subject matter, I wondered if I would be disparaged by readers for commenting about this eloquent feminine manifesto from a male point of view. Nevertheless, I have taken the risk of writing a review because I found Levy’s memoir to be exhilarating, fair and exceptionally well written.
Levy begins “The Cost of Living” by describing three major events in her life: the end of a stifling marriage, the recent death of her mother and the departure of her older daughter for college. She and her younger daughter move from a comfortable, quiet family home into a cold and shabby apartment where she must deal with cramped quarters and the noise and idiosyncrasies of neighbors. Here, at age 50, she hopes to carve out a new life “as both the man and woman of the house.”
So, now, this award-winning English writer, (Two of her novels were nominated for the Man Booker Prize and her work has been staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company and broadcast on the BBC) faces limited finances and confined space without a desk; she works on the balcony at night where she falls asleep in “jeans and boots, like a cowgirl.” As she charts her own course, she reports she finds her new life is both exhausting and exhilarating.
In addition to Levy’s personal story, the narrative explores the subtle expurgations of women’s names and stories throughout history. She critiques the roles women are assigned by society and the prices they pay if they violate conventional gender roles. She assesses what it costs a woman to break through old boundaries and overcome societal orders that make her a minor player in a culture not arranged to her advantage. “Femininity, as a cultural personality, was no longer expressive for me. It was obvious that femininity, as written by men and performed by women, was an exhausted phantom that still haunts the early 21st century.”
The “feminine” qualities of serenity, permanence, and home making are vastly overrated, according to the author. For her the new femininity is defined by the endeavor to be brave, to cross borders and to “find a new way of living.”
The cost of living this new way for Levy was the family home, the delusion of permanence and the sense of stability of remaining within the role assigned by society. Her autobiography is not so much a story of loss as a story of exchange from a sheltered family home to the frenetic pace of the world. As her neighbor puts it, Levy becomes a woman who is “busy, busy, busy”; “crazed by life and crazed for life.” The book’s dry humor, bracing insights and extraordinary sentences make for a fast and smart read that some will want to savor for a while.