“… Gina Mulligan weaves a tale as captivating and unpredictable as the back-room political deals forged by her colorful cast of characters.” — Kristina McMorris, New York Times bestselling author of The Pieces We Keep
So reads one of the endorsements for Gina L. Mulligan’s new book, Remember the Ladies, a book about fighting for women’s right to vote at the turn of the century. It’s an appealing story idea, particularly in a time when in many ways women are still not considered equals, and it sometimes feels like women’s rights are actually going backwards.
(For a link to the NPR story about young women’s lack of empowerment over their own bodies and sexual decisions, or a link to Oklahoma’s ridiculous loophole to the rape law, or a link to how condoms are covered by health insurance reimbursements while maxi pads and tampons or not, see the bottom of this post. Ugh, America. Seriously.)
It’s situations like this, though, that make a book like Remember the Ladies important. Every woman should be fully aware of the continuing need to fight for our rights and to be seen as the equals to men that we are – to be seen as full humans, really.
Mulligan reminds us of what it takes to be a fighter by giving us a strong female protagonist who is lively and engaging without being in a superhero suit. Amelia Cooke, the story’s heroine, is the kind of person who simply likes to use the brain God gave her. I mean, she’s smart. She’s observant. And she wants to help people.
She’s also an orphan, and she goes through a system in the late 1800s that basically trains her to be a housewife, even though she clearly shows plenty of talent for being a leader in intellectual pursuits, business or politics. She’s a Type A in a world that doesn’t even acknowledge women can be anything but Type Bs. But Amelia is tough and determined, and she makes it to Washington, D.C. and becomes a lobbyist against all odds.
Full disclosure here… I’m only halfway through the book right now, but I wanted to post today because I received an ARC of the book and was asked to review it upon its release, which is this week. I’ll review it again after I finish reading it, because to me, a full book review has to address whether the author nailed the ending or not.
But in the meantime, I can tell you why I’d recommend reading this book…and also what I feel Mulligan might want to work on for her next novel.
First, what I like: Amelia, Amelia, Amelia. I love her inventiveness, her backbone, her occasional moments of “feminine weakness” as people in her day might have called it (in other words, she is attracted to a certain man, and that’s nice to see). She’s also someone I can relate to, because it’s not easy to be smart in a world that doesn’t always welcome smart people who point out problems that no one wants pointed out. I’m just glad I live now instead of in 1887.
I also love the setting, which is well drawn and easy to imagine. The story starts off with a bang – a really strong first chapter, actually, with great hooks that I suspect will grab most readers and keep them reading. That’s no easy task for a writer, and I admire that Mulligan has pulled that off. And I like most of the secondary characters too – they feel real and have their distinctive tics that make them stand out.
What I’m not loving, and what I hope either gets better by the end of this book or better in Mulligan’s next book, is her development of the story’s antagonist. In Remember the Ladies, the bad guy is Edward Stillman. Naturally, this is the guy Amelia is attracted to, before they have a falling out that pits them at odds with one another. It’s not the end of the world to use what is essentially a trope, but I like authors to do it a bit more deftly. Something about Stillman feels forced, as if he has to be the bad guy because of (A) a father who’s essentially an abusive lowlife, and (B) a misunderstanding that could easily have been cleared up if both Stillman and Amelia actually talked to each other.
I have a friend – actually, it’s Purple Inker Donna Leahey who posts here too – and she doesn’t like it when plot advances solely because two characters don’t talk to each other about something that seems obvious to talk about. I have to agree with her on this, at least as far as Remember the Ladies is concerned. I can see why Amelia doesn’t bring the issue out into the open – she’s been orphaned, she’s been judged, and she’s afraid to open herself up and get hurt.
But what’s Stillman’s excuse? There are not enough details given to make his reasoning sympathetic, and as a result, he comes across as a big baby. I think this ultimately boils down to Mulligan’s portrayal of Stillman in a rather one-note way. The character lacks the dimensions, contradictions, and depths that could give his actions and political positions more justification.
Bottom line, though, I like the story, I like the history, I like the characters, especially Amelia… So I’ll keep reading. And I’ll post part 2 of the review next week.
Now… For those links on egregious treatment of women in 2016 America…
Also, here’s more on Remember the Ladies and author Gina L. Mulligan if you’re interested…