If you’ve got an eye on the book world, chances are you’ve heard about the problem of relatability. On one side, some readers argue that characters need to be relatable to be compelling. On the flip side, others claim that only reading about lives like one’s own is limiting and problematic.
Meet Leda, who defies both arguments. The titular protagonist of Jana Casale’s The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky is an everywoman built for the twenty-first century. We meet Leda as an undergraduate writing student in Boston, where she longs to make it as a fiction writer, to be thinner, to fall in love. As college-age Leda suffers through bad sex, resents her sometimes-friends, and waffles on her gym membership, Casale makes a particular female experience vivid, centered, seen.
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Constructed from episodic slices of life, the novel sees Leda through the Hallmark milestones of her life—marriage, parenthood, bereavement—but also through the quotidian slog of her days, through children’s tantrums and trash television binges. The disarming wit and granular detail of these vignettes feels intensely personal, drawn from the lively mind of a unique character, yet universally recognizable.
“We don’t pay a lot of attention to the little things, yet through them, there’s so much opportunity to show how people are feeling,” Casale told me over the phone from San Francisco. “All of humanity can be shrunken down to those tiny moments, because everything we do is an example of who we are. In a way, those moments can be more interesting than bigger-picture ideas, because they’re more of what we deal with and more where we see ourselves.”
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Take, for example, one of the book’s most incisive scenes. A middle-aged Leda, shopping for a bathing suit, takes stock of her aging figure: “She was disgusting, fat, worthless. How dare you even live.” When she gets stuck in a swimsuit and has to be freed by the infuriatingly cheerful saleswoman, she strikes an all too familiar bargain: “She promised herself all kinds of things about eating salad and going for walks in the evening…. She felt like crying and she felt like screaming…. Her whole life and the fat pinching and hating her stomach.” It’s a familiar, scalding cocktail of shame and self-loathing.
“It’s really sad that we have essentially half the population walking around with these insecurities about the vessel of who they are,” Casale said. “That’s a common issue with women—across the board, we’re made to feel like our lives are lesser, less important, less serious, less sad or hard. It’s devastating that this is the way it is.”
As Leda ages, we see her youthful ambitions clash with the disappointments and compromises of adult womanhood. Her graduate school plans are put on hold when she relocates to support her boyfriend’s career; her dream of becoming a master gardener is dashed by her own black thumb. It’s not a spoiler to say that she never gets around to Noam Chomsky, either. Casale is deeply invested in asking unanswerable questions about shaping a life of meaning, particularly as that challenge relates to gender and “having it all.”
“Leda doesn’t get to go towards her dreams and be a writer; she doesn’t fulfill that goal,” Casale said. “But she’s still a happy person. Most people don’t follow the path or dream they had as a kid. Does that mean you’re not living a happy life? No. Is your life fulfilled? That’s the question. I’m always wondering and thinking about what we’re doing versus what we want to do. And what that means for us in our personhood, especially as it relates to women.”
Late in her life, Leda remarks, “The fundamental condition of womanhood is loneliness.” The novel brims with similar gems, each of them asking us to consider a woman’s interior life. “The space and the freedom that men must have inside their minds is just so different from what women experience,” Casale said. “Women get a very early sense of burden in having to carry so many different loads. Each one affects how you perceive yourself and how you attack the world. All these little things add up, and I just thought: That’s a very lonely way to live. Leda and her husband can connect in many ways, but not this one. He got to live a life very free of those burdens, and she did not.”
Despite the societal constrictions placed on her, Leda’s life on the page is striking in that it’s a life, just as it’s lived. Casale finds beauty and profundity in the ordinary trials and joys of womanhood. What’s so feminist about this novel is the assertion that the entirety of a woman’s existence, in all its splendor and struggle and minutiae, matters. This one life is worth reading about; it’s enough.
“We have a lot of people who aren’t being treated equally,” Casale said. “They’re looked at as not the same. They’re not respected. My book is about a woman who’s dealing with things she shouldn’t have to because of how she was born. I hope this book makes women feel less lonely. That’s the goal, more than anything else.”