Navigate to Community section

What We Talk About When We Talk About Unlikable Women Characters

Elisa Albert’s new novel, ‘After Birth,’ takes place inside the head of an entitled, venomous, hilarious female narrator

Marjorie Ingall
February 10, 2015
Tablet Magazine; original image: Madonna and Child by Filippo Lippi, (1406 – 1469).(Wikimedia Commons)
Tablet Magazine; original image: Madonna and Child by Filippo Lippi, (1406 – 1469).(Wikimedia Commons)

Elisa Albert’s new novel After Birth gave my highlighter pen a workout. It’s the story of Ari—Brooklyn escapee to upstate New York, all-but-dissertation grad student in women’s studies, wife to a 15-years-older professor named Paul, mother to a baby named Walker, possessor of a rip-roaring case of postpartum (and likely pre-partum) depression—and the witty lines and amusingly nasty quips come fast and furious. Albert is seriously funny. (Also seriously foul-mouthed. Readers with delicate sensibilities should go read a soothing story about Muslim extremists or rising Italian anti-Semitism.)

Some of the pomo-vaginal-Oscar-Wildean bits:

I’ve always had a hard time differentiating between people who hate me and people who want to fuck me. Usually because, I finally realized, there’s often a great deal of overlap.

I am not giving him fucking powdered poison cow sugar processed fucking gross Nestle Africa atrocity sludge!

In August at a café in Chatham, a second-home grandma type sat down at the next table and said, quite companionably, you know you can breastfeed that kid until he’s twenty, but you’ll fuck him up for life.
Oh, don’t worry, I told her, just as companionably. He’s not mine.

How the hell do you manage to be both depressed and bubbly? Charm, it’s called.

I almost liked being with her, I disliked her so much.

Nothing much happens in the time-frame of the book, which all takes place in Ari’s head. But Ari’s thoughts meander back to her days as an entitled college student (she says of that period, “It seemed to me at that point that one could not be a fully realized woman—nay, human—if one was not a lesbian”); to seventh grade, when her batshit insane, cruel mom died of DES-induced cancer; to the horrifying acts her grandmother committed to survive life in a concentration camp. The vicious, baiting ghost of her mother keeps visiting her to judge her parenting and her wifeliness and find both wanting (“Demerol bitch,” Ari says, dismissing her). Ari’s own obsessions with her C-section (“the surgery,” she calls it repeatedly, as if it were the title of a horror movie), the evils of baby formula, and the morality of leaving her baby with a caregiver for a few hours seem utterly and hilariously self-absorbed, especially compared to her own grandmother’s obsession with her inability to save her siblings from the Holocaust. But Ari lacks, shall we say, perspective.

I laughed at After Birth’s one-liners and admired the depiction of inchoate female rage and respected the art of the writing. I also hated reading this book. Felt queasy every time I picked it up. Heaved a huge sigh of relief when I was done with it, even though I was glad I’d read it.

I started thinking about why I had such a complicated response. Albert’s first novel, The Book of Dahlia, also featured an unlikable heroine, a twentysomething pothead princess mooch with terminal brain cancer. But I didn’t loathe Dahlia the way I did Ari. (“That’s because she dies,” said my editor. “She’s punished for being an entitled little shit.”) I don’t know how I’d respond to having a terminal illness; I do know from motherhood. And I think my discomfort with Ari is about my unease with the way our world views motherhood and with the way motherhood made me view myself.

Ari loves and hates her former-rock-idol friend Mina. (“I couldn’t bring myself to approach her, so instinctively I labeled her a total bitch,” Ari says of their early days. “That’s my automatic thing with women. They’re guilty until proven innocent.”) Mina had the natural birth Ari feels she was denied by bullying doctors (“You were raped, essentially,” observes Mina). But Ari is a top-notch breastfeeder, which Mina isn’t. So, Ari breastfeeds Mina’s baby, and therefore feels needed, like a rescuer, like there’s one thing she can do better.

Ari’s disgust at mothers who don’t even try to do better (which means parenting the way she parents) is boundless.

I practiced my blank stare. How noble of you to plug your kid with some processed milk-derivative shit marketed by the same people who brought the world Oreos, how very feminist of you, yes, every woman makes her choices, absolutely, what glorious freedom we enjoy. Way to stick it to the man. How empowered you are, subverting a basic function of your body. May I shake your hand? You show that body of yours who’s boss! You get on with your bad self. What shipshape shiny master’s tools you’ve got there. How’s the dismantling of the master’s house working out?

Brutal. And yet, I am the person who was so rabidly determined to breastfeed that I spent $900 I did not have on lactation consultants, nursed through infections that turned my breast the color of borscht, spent months with cabbage leaves (some Israeli remedy, I was told) tucked into my bra. With Josie, I was induced in a flurry of panic and was unable to keep in place my epidural-free birth plan. I felt I’d failed childbirth, I was damn sure I was going to win at nursing. (With Maxine, I had the exact hippie childbirth I’d wanted, and had no trouble nursing, and a decade later all of this feels insignificant compared to the daily work of school and juggling and family life in general. So, I can tell you now that everything old people say about “as long as the baby is healthy” is true. Because I am one of the old people.)

The all-consuming-ness of Ari’s self-judgment and judgment of other women and inability to look beyond her own body made me uncomfortable. But we also live in a culture that is obsessed with women’s bodies, their looks, their failures. As Ari herself notes:

Adrienne Rich had it right. No one gives a crap about motherhood unless they can profit off it. Women are expendable and the work of childbearing, done fully, done consciously, is all-consuming. So who’s gonna write about it if everyone doing it is lost forever within it? You want adventures, you want poetry and art, you want to salon it up over at Gertrude and Alice’s, you’d best leave the messy all-consuming baby stuff to someone else. Birthing and nursing and rocking and distracting and socializing and cooking and washing and gardening and mending: what’s that compared with bullets whizzing overhead, dazzling destructive choices, headlines, parties, glory, all that Martha Gellhorn stuff, all that Zelda Fitzgerald stuff, drugs and gutters and music and poetry pretty dresses more parties and fucking and fucking and parties?

Ari is just as correct as she is unpleasant. Which, of course, brings up the recent debate about unlikable female characters. In 2013, Claire Messud protested that only women writers are obligated to write characters readers want to hang out with; no one complains that Philip Roth or Jonathan Franzen write about people you wouldn’t want to be friends with. And that’s because female frustration and fury are deemed icky. Indeed, social psychologists have established that traits like assertiveness are fine in men but recast as “pushiness” in women, and women are supposed to be nice above all else. “If it’s unseemly and possibly dangerous for a man to be angry,” Messud said in Publishers Weekly, “it’s totally unacceptable for a woman to be angry.”

But we can learn from women’s anger, and we can learn from our own discomfort with other women’s anger. Life with infants (“those balls of undercooked human,” Ari calls them) is its own universe, one of total immediacy and demands that you forget once you’re out the other side. The amount of change you go through, and the way your self-perception and the world’s perception of you changes when you become a mother—if you were a hottie sinner like Ari, now you’re supposed to be a sexless saint—is vast. We all feel alone, even if we haven’t lost our mothers or dislike and mistrust other women the way Ari does. (“I’m kind of a bitch,” she says, and she is.) Ari’s husband Paul is barely present in the book—he’s as much of a ghost as her mother. It’s not comfortable to admit that this lack of being tuned in to one’s spouse is true for a lot of us as new mothers.

After Birth made me flinch. A lot. Shalom Auslander called Elisa Albert “Bukowski with a vagina and a motherfucker of a hangover,” and Emily Gould said of After Birth, “This book takes your essay about ‘likable female characters,’ writes FUCK YOU on it in menstrual blood, then sets it on fire.” It does. It’s true and brave. But it’s not a lot of fun to read.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.