All through the room, cracks and burns exposed an underlayer of barren brown that was spreading as though blight had struck the skimpy surfaces. A yellowish lampshade next to the bed had succumbed to a half century of forty-watt bulbs and displayed its diseased patches of brown. There was no question in my mind that whatever had afflicted the room was contagious and would get to me next.
— from After Claude, by Iris Owens.
I first heard of this book a few months ago during NYRB Reading Week. (You can read reviews at Bibiliographing, Shelf Love, and The Dewey Divas.)
It starts off with wit and self-assurance ("I left Claude, the French rat.). The Bell Jar, The Dud Avocado, Fear of Flying — it has a voice in this class of books. Feminist spirit. Self-examination.
But it didn't take long — just a few pages — to find that I didn't like Harriet the narrator) all that much. She's deluded and downright mean-spirited.
This makes for a fascinating train wreck of a read, but I have to admit I had trouble getting past my distaste for her character. I had to repeatedly remind myself that I was supposed to be enjoying this, in a jaw-dropping OMG-how-can-she-do/say/think-that kind of way, and stop getting worked up over Harriet's poor decisions. (This book is pretty much dismissed by the Guardian, where, curiously enough, it's reviewed by a man, and I can't help but feel that's a factor in their low opinion.)
Midway, the novel takes a turn for the weird and becomes a very different novel from the one it started out to be.
While the first section is spent mostly in Claude's apartment, warlike and reliving the past inside her head, the second section takes place in a room at the Chelsea Hotel, where it's all peace and love, and Harriet actually looks outside herself and finds her saviour, man. These two sections almost don't belong together.
I'm ambivalent about After Claude for lots of reasons. If you've read and enjoyed the novels of Plath, Dundy, Jong, then Owens may entertain you and will bring a 1973 complement to the lives of women depicted therein. If you've not read those other books, go read them first.