Ariel Levy’s first book, Female Chauvinist Pigs, was a feminist polemic that attacked the idea that women’s liberation lay in stripping down to your scanties and pretending you’re a porn star. It was angry, brilliant, and my feminist awakening. Her arguments became seared onto my mind and would leak from my lips, like an evangelical with passages from the Bible.
So it’s interesting that the New Yorker writer’s second book, a memoir, confronts a feminist taboo: the cruelty of biology. Sure, Levy writes about her childhood, including her parents’ part-time ménage-à-trois (visits from “special friend” Marcus made her mother “giddy” but when her parents split it turned out he “only worked as a side dish”) and about her envy-inducing career, but The Rules Do Not Apply is mostly about waning fertility. Levy imagined she could ignore the tipped-over egg-timer, only to realise in her late thirties that “the body doesn’t play by the rules”.
Initially, she had her doubts about having children: “To become a mother, I feared, was to relinquish your status as the protagonist of your own life.” But then both she and her friends did a 180. It’s like the recent Young Vic production of Yerma with Billie Piper: women ambivalent towards babies suddenly feel “only motherhood was meaningful” and blow their savings on IVF.
Levy likens fertility to a dragon “secured in the dungeon and left to moulder” until it becomes urgent: “But the beast had not grown stronger during the decades of hibernation… It was weakened, wizened. Old.”
Levy faced an extra complication — her partner was a woman, Lucy. They get married and pencil “having a baby” into their plans. But then cracks appear. Lucy is drinking heavily and Levy starts up again with an ex. The couple break up and get back together, only for Levy to conceive with sperm from a friend, “Suddenly I was a witch with the power to brew life into being.” But at five months’ pregnant — on assignment in Mongolia — Levy suffers terrible abdominal pain. She remembers thinking, “This is going to be the craziest shit in history,” but the “unholy storm” in her body is her giving birth. The baby is too young to survive. When Levy returns, she finds Lucy “zombified”. She is still drinking and the pair break up. When the father decides that he doesn’t want to try for another child, Levy’s “downfall was complete”.
Levy’s openness leads to fascinating admissions, such as how “gendered” same-sex relationships can be. She shudders when people call Lucy her wife — “it was all wrong... I am the girl” — because Lucy was the “butch”, the one who drove and carried suitcases from the car. And she is candid too about the way we sting those we love. Levy didn’t want fidelity included in their vows only to realise, “I had chosen not to hear that it was important to her.”
From the outside Levy’s life had seemed charmed — she’s the talented one per cent, she has the dream job and many would envisage her as a fantasy best friend. But she shows that the reality was always — even before tragedy hit — more complex. Above all, though, there’s a potent warning for women here: many of us really can’t “have it all”.
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