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American Women in Saigon

Tue, 10/31/2023 - 15:05
Alice McDermott
Beowulf Sheehan

Alice McDermott 
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28 

In her novel "Absolution," Alice McDermott gives us living, breathing characters and the zeitgeist of the 1960s experienced by American women, particularly those living as expats in Vietnam. Ms. McDermott achieves this verisimilitude through precise attention to detail and her metaphoric gift for choosing a particular item, in one instance the panty girdle, that stands for so much more than itself.

Newly arrived in Saigon with her husband, Peter, a lawyer and engineer working for Navy Intelligence, 23-year-old Tricia Kelly dresses for an event at which she'll meet other women in her situation. First, of course, she steps into her white panty girdle. In our current era of comfortable clothing, that girdle is almost as archaic as the full-torso corset. The girdle, with a diamond-shaped panel designed to rein in fat, was worn even by those with flat tummies. The mere thought of it could squeeze the breath out of any of those women alive today who wore that garment in the middle of the last century.

Then, the panty girdle was part of our toilette. So was hairspray — hard as a coat of shellac — applied to our Jackie Kennedy bouffant coifs. And don't forget the clothes we wore to be appropriate — appropriate for the middle and upper-middle-class wives we were, or aspired to be. Think of the panty girdle as an apt symbol for the constriction of women's lives in those pre-feminist days.  

Tricia's father asks her to promise, on her wedding day, that she will be a "helpmeet" to her husband. Translation: She will help him achieve success, make him a comfortable home, prepare his meals, and, above all else, bear his children, children who would carry his name and genetic characteristics forward. Her career, if any, would be a temporary pursuit while awaiting motherhood.

Hard to believe this lifestyle was actually aspired to by the majority of middle-class, and therefore white, Americans. So-called free women were raised to see their lives as protected, blessed, and advantaged. Most did not perceive their existence to be constricted at the core. Changing perceptions led to the women's movement and the vast societal changes that followed.

Ms. McDermott illuminates the period through three central characters: Tricia, the primary narrator; her new friend and mentor, the impossibly controlling do-gooder Charlene, and Charlene's 9-year-old daughter, Rainey.

Their stories are revealed in an interesting structure for an epistolary novel. Instead of alternating letters or narratives of similar length, Tricia's opening section, addressed to Rainey, spans three-quarters of the book. She describes what their intersecting lives were like in Saigon 50 years earlier, in 1963, around the time President Diem was overthrown. Then, in a fraction of the space, Rainey tells Tricia what happened to her mother, Charlene, and the rest of the family after they returned to the States. Tricia gets the book's last words in a small, extremely powerful section about her final days in Vietnam. She describes a heart-rending experience that gives the book its title. (No spoiler here!)

The epistolary technique of each narration being addressed to "you" inevitably brings the reader close to the story. Tricia and Rainey's accounts of their lives become as intimate as if you were privy to their locked diaries. 

Tricia quickly comes under the spell of Charlene, a charismatic, purposeful leader who's constantly coming up with ideas to do good, to help the Vietnamese natives. In one sense, Charlene's activities could be seen as the fairly typical ones of privileged, married women of the period. Entertaining, volunteering, and joining clubs were common ways to keep busy while building family status in the community and making social connections that help advance a husband's career.  

But Charlene's pursuits seem to be driven by an intense desire to do something meaningful, something outside the usual boundaries. Her eccentric ideas are sometimes laughable, or seem absolutely crazy. One is to make custom-fitted silk pajamas for a colony of lepers. She arranges for a seamstress to take measurements and sew the clothes. Crazy, maybe, and yet luxurious and comforting. The idea is driven in part by Charlene's knowledge that one of the lepers is a dear cousin of the seamstress. They haven't seen each other in years and could reconnect. 

Another of Charlene's projects is to have Barbie dolls dressed in silk ao dai, the traditional Vietnamese costume, topped with a non la, the ubiquitous, peaked straw hat. Her plan is to sell these as souvenirs and use the money to supply candy and toys to children in Vietnamese orphanages and hospitals. There would be chocolates, tea, and cigarettes for their nurses, parents, and grandparents.

Most of what Tricia and Rainey recount centers on Charlene, who is, in that sense, the main character. Some would call her an aggressive bully, because of the way she persuades people to make things happen. Others would describe her as having an unstoppable drive. Tricia remarks that Charlene has "the healthy, athletic, genetic confidence of one born to wealth." 

By describing her longtime friendship with Stella, back in the States, Tricia indirectly compares Stella with Charlene. Stella wants to atone for the fact that her Southern family were slave owners. She wants to join the Freedom Riders. Her family understands that she seeks "tikkun olam," the Hebrew concept meaning "to repair the world," but they fear for her safety. 

Fueled by Librium and alcohol to fight her anxiety and depression, Charlene seeks the same goal in her unusual way. Later, grown-up Rainey calls her mother's pursuits "inconsequential good." 

Just as the husbands are peripheral in this novel, which is being marketed as a story about women having center stage, rather than being minor characters, as in most literature about the Vietnam War, the war itself seems peripheral. True, the plot takes place in 1963, in the months before Diem is assassinated and the situation escalates, but much is already going on. Hints of conflict are given and reveal the women's ignorance or avoidance of the facts. Tricia tells grown-up Rainey, "I was tempted to interject into the women's blithe praise of these lovely people [their Vietnamese servants] some comment about the legless old beggar outside the marketplace. . . . I could bring our twittering conversation to a halt by asking them what they thought of the distant thudding of artillery we could hear from the other side of the river, even in those days; the distant tracing of fire we could see now and then from the happy confines of our barbed-wired homes."

Because there is little description of this harsh reality, the war seems almost nonexistent. At moments, this distancing makes the place, Vietnam, seem of little consequence. It is almost as if the novel could have been set in any American city to explore the lives of corporate and military wives during that time.  

Somehow, though, the sense of the war's gathering force becomes an understated backdrop to the plot. Responsibility rests with the reader to supply the history that gives rise to the absolution some of the characters seek. It is also up to us to remember women who did have agency during that period. Heroic, real-life women, such as Frances FitzGerald, Lady Borton, Dickey Chapelle, and many others who risked, or lost, their lives to get the story out of Vietnam. 

Fran Castan, a resident of Amagansett and Springs for 47 years, now lives in Greenport. Her first husband, Sam Castan, Southeast Asia correspondent for Look magazine, was killed on assignment in Vietnam. The couple and their infant daughter lived in Hong Kong in 1965 and 1966. Ms. Castan's books of poetry are "The Widow's Quilt" and "Venice: City That Paints Itself," with art by her husband of 42 years, the late Lewis Zacks.   

Alice McDermott has been a visitor to East Hampton since she was a child.

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