The central question of this much-talked-about book isn’t: How does Kate Reddy, working mother, do it? It is, rather: Why is she such a bitch? British novelist Allison Pearson’s debut effort has enjoyed a smashing success in her homeland, and her brittle, bitter title character has been engulfed in a tide of public empathy; but if Kate Reddy is indeed the new symbol of working mothers, then working mothers are in real trouble.
The book opens with Kate, dead on her feet from a business trip to the U.S., preparing store-bought mince pies for the Christmas party at her five-year-old daughter Emily’s school. Kate “distresses” the pies in an endeavor to make them look homemade, to avoid the censure of “the Muffia” (her phrase for smug stay-at-home mothers). Kate’s life is one of constant travail, juggling the demands of being a high-powered London hedge-fund manager by day with those of being a wife to Rich and mother of Emily and toddler Ben by night. Kate is always dashing for a plane or the next important appointment, and always consumed with guilt for neglecting her children. “Women used to have time to make mince pies and had to fake orgasms,” she muses glumly. “Now we can manage the orgasms, but we have to fake the mince pies.”
For insights such as these, Pearson has been hailed as “the Jane Austen of working mothers,” and Kate has been billed as the new Bridget Jones, grown up and stressed out, trying to strike the “impossible balance” between work and family. She will be even more famous when the movie comes out — Miramax already has signed a $2 million deal for the film. In short, Kate Reddy has become a feminist heroine.
Much of the book is devoted to Kate’s guilt over the time that her work takes away from her children. “Rich [the husband] doesn’t worry about child care the way I worry,” superior Kate thinks. “Men worry about child care with their wallets, women feel it in their wombs.” But there is absolutely no evidence of this in the book. Kate blathers a lot of sentimental stuff about how wonderful childbirth is, how instantaneous a mother’s love for a child is, etc., but she doesn’t connect this with the reality of bringing up children after you’ve brought them into the world. For example, she hides from her son so he won’t cry because she is going on a business trip to the U.S.; is this really feeling with your womb?
Kate’s idea of motherhood is rather odd — who really cares whether Mummy makes real mince pies for the Christmas party? Kate’s motherly affection is manifested by having Paula, the nanny, dress the children in fancy clothes and feed them organic food. “For my vulnerable young, only free-range. How many times must I tell her that?” she frets. On a vacation in Wales, Kate orders Paula to feed the children quiche instead of chicken with bread crumbs because there may be antibiotics in the chicken. Kate is so frantic about getting to Heathrow for a flight to New York that she forgets to hand over her sick child’s urine specimen for the doctor and arrives with it at customs in New York. Little Emily wants a swimming party, but her mother says no: Kate is repulsed not just by the “bacteria-rich” water in the hired pool, but also by the fact that she’d have to take time off to get her legs waxed.
Needless to say, put-upon Kate resents the nanny. “People say the trouble with professional women of my generation is that we don’t know how to behave with servants,” she complains. “Wrong. The trouble with professional women of my generation is that we are the servants — forelock-tuggingly grateful to any domestic help, for which we pay through the nose, while struggling to hold down the master’s job ourselves.”
Kate’s attitude toward her longsuffering husband is worse. She turns nasty when he makes pesto from scratch; Kate feels it shows up her domestic shortcomings. Her main pleasure in life is the bath, where she luxuriates in the aroma of lavender salts and reads Jameson’s Country Property Guide (“What is a barreled ceiling? I’m not quite sure but I want one”). One night she discovers there is no hot water, and launches an attack on Rich: “‘I work all the hours God sends and I live in conditions of medieval squalor. . . .’ Rich reaches out an arm, but I bat it away. My tears are alarmingly hot — the temperature of the bath I’m not going to have.”
When Kate and Rich argue about the nanny, Rich asks whether it would really be so bad if the all-powerful mother surrogate did quit. “Frankly, it would be easier if you left,” Kate snaps at Rich. (She attributes this unprovoked cruelty to her “damn tiredness.”) She also indulges in a flirtation with an American client, Jack Abelhammer (the name has been remarked upon in a number of reviews).
Kate’s dying friend, Jill Cooper-Clark, doesn’t fare any better than Rich and the children. Kate constantly writes in her “must remember” list that she should call Jill, a cancer patient. But she just doesn’t get around to it, and Jill dies. Kate finds time to quietly emote at the cemetery, but doesn’t seem to care that she neglected Jill while she was alive. Pearson seems to think there is an excuse for Kate’s heartlessness: She grew up with a ne’er-do-well alcoholic father who walked out on his family but now hits Kate up for money for his improbable schemes. Pearson implies that poor Kate does it all so that her children will have more advantages, free-range chicken and such, than Kate herself had.
At the end of the book, Kate has a sort of conversion experience, caused by Rich’s reluctant decision to walk out on her and Ben’s falling down the stairs. Her solution is not to look for a compromise, but to leave work in London’s financial district entirely. Kate and Rich sell the house, move to the country, and Kate is magically transformed into a model mother. She also finds less demanding work, buying a factory where women make furniture for dollhouses. (Mr. Ibsen, call your office.)
There is one last gesture towards London’s male-dominated financial world. Kate and a band of other working women meet in the Suckling Club, a gentlemen’s establishment where Kate and her friends are the only women who aren’t topless. There they plot the downfall of Chris Bunch, a man who has put pornographic pictures of one of their coworkers on his website. The women conspire in an intricate plan to sell him a phony biodegradable diaper company, so that he will be disgraced in the press and then fired. This scoundrel, of course, deserves his fate, but wouldn’t a sexual-harassment complaint have been a lot easier? Kate Reddy invests a lot of her (supposedly scarce) time in conniving at this elaborately vindictive yet basically petty scheme of ruin. I’m glad I don’t work for Kate Reddy: what a bitch.
— Charlotte Hays is editor of The Women’s Quarterly.