I have been reading Alice Mattison's wonderful book about writing:The Kite and the String. One passage that has particular resonance for me concerns literary writing about modern women with careers. "For many centuries a novel about a woman doctor (for example) was so unlikely that when it became possible to write one, it still seemed unlikely. When we have written such books, because the carrying-out of work by women is still a recent phenomenon, often they are books arguing that it's right for women for work, instead of assuming it and moving on from there." Or, I would add, books where the career woman fails or sabotages herself. For example, the midwife character in Michael Chabon's book Telegraph Avenue, is a black woman who fights with the obstetricians. As any U.S. midwife can tell you, learning to work alongside obstetricians is an essential skill, one they master in training or pick another career. And black women have gone along to get along for centuries. It was painful to read about this character committing what in real life she would have known was professional suicide in an almost casual manner. On the other hand, Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, a memoir by a scientist in her forties, is spectacular because the author never questions her right to be a botanist and doesn't dwell on the inequities, without pretending they don't exist.
Tessa Hadley writes rich prose about present day women (Clever Girl, The Past, The London Train) whose lives are still regularly derailed by pregnancy and childrearing. Maybe literary fiction can not embrace women who take control of their reproductive lives with birth control and abortion because pregnancy is such a useful literary device. I appreciate that Hadley wants us to remember that there are many women who throw out their youthful ambition, like the character in Married Life who almost chucks her violin. The descriptions of children are profound and the novels are seductively comfortable. But I, like Mattison, would also like to see ambitious women on the page.