As I read Laura Zigman’s hilarious, poignant novel, Separation Anxiety, I kept thinking, “I love this character, but she should be bitchier.” I mean, Judy is kind of bitchy. She and her anxious husband, Gary, are relentlessly critical of other people. But Judy often back-pedals afterwards, showing her soft side. And yet surely she is entitled to bitchy observations: the poor woman is so anxious that she “wears” the dog in a baby sling for comfort.
Is bitchdom dead in American fiction? Well, that is not my area of expertise. But off the top of my head, I would say American bitchdom throve in the 20th century. Especially memorable are the tough bitches of the 1930s and ’40s.
Scarlett O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936) was everybody’s favorite bitch, as they incredulously watched her claw her way to the top through sex, marriage, and unscrupulous business practices. Then there was James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce (1941), in which Mildred steals her hard-working restaurateur mother’s upper-class boyfriend to get ahead as a singer. In Lillian Hellman’s play The Little Foxes (1939), Regina Hubbard Giddens lets her husband Horace die of a heart attack to get control of the finances. And in Nancy Hale’s unputdownable pulp novel, The Prodigal Women (1943), Leda March, the intellectual daughter of a well-to-do Boston family, betrays one of her childhood friends by stealing her husband, Lambert: since Maizie has become a frump, Leda has no mercy, thinking it is Maizie’s fault that she ends up in a mental hospital. (Actually, Lambert insisted on an illegal abortion in South America, which shattered her health.)
We all love reading about such heroines, or at least my mother and her peers did, perhaps because they themselves were so relentlessly proper, with Bridge club their main outing, and exhausted by the Depression. But what about slightly bitchy heroines? I will jump to 2020. There have been a lot of (slightly) bitchy heroines in American fiction this year.
There is Feron Hood in Gail Godwin’s novel Old Lovewood Girls, a working-class girl who remains competitive with her kind upper-class college roommate Merry Grace, because she wants to be the better writer. And there is Lydia in Robert Hellenga’s Love, Death & Rare Books, an intellectual who prefers Romantic poetry to Gabe, the rare bookstore owner who is in unrequited love with her.
But the winner of Worst Bitch of the Year has to be Glenna in Martha McPhee’s superb family saga, A Fashionable Woman. Glenna is a middle-class teacher who deserts her two daughters in Montana to pursue politics and a career. Tommy, her oldest daughter, sells coyote pelts to support herself and her younger sister. Tommy has issues, yet turns out to be a pretty good mother. Her life is a lie, though. (Honestly, this is one of the most underrated novels of the year, one of my favorites.)
Let me end on a positive note. I recommend Zigman’s Separation Anxiety as perfect weekend reading. Zigman is extremely witty, and you will be fascinated by Judy’s musings on her sad, tangled life, which is complicated by issues of separation from men: she and her anxious husband, Gary, cannot afford a divorce, so he lives in the basement; while her beloved teenage son, Teddy, no longer wants to hang out with her. Judy gets my vote as most original heroine of the year.
But, yes, Judy could be slightly bitchier. And we would forgive her.