I’ll Take You There by Wally Lamb: Men can be feminists, too

Cover imageI can’t say I embraced the prospect of Wally Lamb’s new novel entirely enthusiastically: I’d read his first, She’s Come Undone, which was praised to the skies by all and sundry but left me cold, and the blurb mentions ghosts which I found distinctly off-putting. You might wonder, then, why I decided to read it. The answer is that it appeared to be a feminist novel by a man, a phenomenon well worth investigating.

Felix Funicello is a sixty-year-old professor of film studies. Divorced, he adores his daughter Aliza, encouraging her in her journalistic career, and is on good enough terms with his ex-wife. He’s the brother of two sisters, both of whom he loves dearly. One Monday night, setting up in the gloriously old-fashioned cinema in which he runs his film club, an apparition appears introducing herself as Lois Weber, a silent movie director much overlooked by her male colleagues and wanting the record put straight. She tells Felix that he’s been chosen as ‘educable’, playing him footage of significant scenes from his life and occasionally directing him to ‘re-enter’ those scenes. As he watches his family, Felix is hit by a wave of nostalgia accompanied by the benefit of hindsight. He overhears his beautiful sister Simone confide her boss’s sexual harassment to their mother and his mother’s inadequate response; he watches his sister Francis throwing herself into the Rheingold Girls beauty pageant election and her terrible struggles with anorexia. As Lois shows Felix more of his life, the pieces of his own personal jigsaw begin to fall into place until he understands the women in his life far better.

Narrated in the first person, Lamb’s novel is written in a very direct, conversational style. It bowls along nicely, interweaving Felix’s family story with historical context and movie trivia. Those worrying  ‘ghost’ scenes are carried off with humour, smartly avoiding any painful creakiness. Felix’s hindsight allows Lamb to smoothly make points about the tyranny of beauty, the exploitation of women’s insecurities and the casual dismissal of women’s potential and achievements. Aliza’s blog post towards the end of the novel is a neat riposte to her mother’s angry dismissal of ‘post-feminism’ in which she argues that a new generation of feminists is attacking sexist attitudes using a different set of tools. I’ll Take You There is a very rare thing: an enjoyable, commercial novel with a broad, deep streak of feminism running through it, and it’s written by a man. I won’t be catching up with Lamb’s backlist anytime soon but this one proved to be well worth my time.

This may well be my last review for 2016. The rest of December’s posts are likely to be taken up with looking forwards and back in that time-honoured fashion for the last month of the year.

22 thoughts on “I’ll Take You There by Wally Lamb: Men can be feminists, too”

  1. Interesting. I enjoyed some of Lamb’s early work (I think I particularly liked I Know This Much is True) but he fell off my radar for years. I picked up his 2014 release, We Are Water, last year with great anticipation… and it was terrible. So bad that it left me wondering if I’d ever had a reading relationship with Wally Lamb! Maybe We Are Water was the blip and he’s back to form with this one?

    1. Only having read the oddly named She’s Come Undone, I can’t really judge but I did enjoy this one. Not great literature but I liked the idea behind it.

      1. I’d always put him in the ‘beach reads’ category but I think that was because Oprah picked his stuff for her book club (I sound like such a book snob!)

  2. I tried to read a Wally Lamb once, possibly She Came Undone and wasn’t fussed at all so I’ve been avoiding the couple of others I still have in the TBR. This sounds worth a go though.

    1. It was a bit of a door stopper, too, yet I can remember nothing about it! This one’s much better than that – not beautifully polished prose but an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours.

    1. Ah, maybe I should give that one a try. The general consensus seems to be that his books are a little hit and miss.

        1. That’s interesting – so often topics very close to one’s heart grate in fiction but it sounds as if this one hit the spot for you. He uses humour in this one, too.

  3. I often think that having low expectations is often the route to discovering something good, and it sounds like that’s been your experience here. Sounds like an interesting read.

    1. I’d be interested to see what you think of it, Naomi. Happy to host a guest post if you felt you wanted to review.

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  5. Just dug out She Came Undone as my writing tutor recommended it in relation to one aspwct of my own novel so will be interesting to see how I find that AND have to say I love the sound of this one espec Naomi’s xmas Carol analogy… makes me think of an old Streep & Hoffman movie where they are in heaven’s holdinv bay having to look back on life events… intrivuing!

    1. I hope you get on better with She Came Undone than I did, poppy. This one worked well for me, though. I like the idea of a man writing a book with a strong feminist theme, particularly a commercial novel.

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