Reviewed By Jennifer Wisner Kelly
- Harper Collins (2017)
- 560 pages
A rebellion requires, of course, an adversary. Some authority or force against which to fight openly, most often for justice. For the women in Molly Patterson’s ambitious debut novel, Rebellion, that force is conformity to traditional gender norms. Spanning more than a century, Rebellion weaves the stories of four women (and those of several minor characters) who reject societal and familial expectations for what a woman—a wife, a mother, a daughter, a friend—must be and do. Patterson deftly demonstrates that, like most rebellions, women’s resistance to gender norms comes at a punishing cost. It means rebellion not just against an amorphous societal expectation, but also, more pragmatically, against loved ones who subscribe to these norms. A rebel must act in accordance with her subversive thoughts.
The oldest story line in the novel, set in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, is that of sisters Louisa and Addie. Addie travels with her new husband to China as a missionary only to find domestic life to be as suffocating as the thick dust that coats everything as she sleeps: “This was the worst of all, the dust crawling in at night to settle on them as they slept. It was like waking up in a china cabinet. You felt that a year had gone by in a night. You could feel time passing.” Addie first tries to find her identity in her home, her religious work, and her children, but it isn’t until a truly independent woman joins the mission that Addie sees the path she must take. Her rebellion requires painful sacrifice but can’t be avoided.
In contrast, Louisa escapes from her parents’ staid life only to find herself a sixteen-year-old wife on a scruffy Midwestern farm in a lifelong struggle with depression. “Good days and bad days. . . . Good weeks, bad weeks—Bert called it the weather. . . . The good weather was simply good all the way through, but the bad weather was subtler: it had shape and distinction; it was dynamic. . . .” Louisa’s life is steady diet of disappointment and quiet familial love that is supposed to satisfy but leaves her disheartened and self-harming. This, it seems, is the cost of not rebelling.
Patterson captures the delicate balance between love and envy that these sisters, on their divergent paths, share: “Hadn’t they both thrown away comfort for love, or something like it? For adventure? For faith?” Louisa envies the many foreign wonders of Addie’s experience in China, while Addie envies the seeming peace of her sister’s farm life. One sister chooses to be true to her inner self at the cost of her family and even her safety; the other swallows pain to preserve stability. Patterson reminds us that neither path is easy.
The next story line, chronologically, begins in 1958 and belongs to Hazel, Louisa’s daughter, who has independence thrust upon her by the early death of her husband. Hazel quickly discovers how tight are the binds that have been placed upon her for being a woman. Now she must claim her own destiny: “For the first time I saw just how completely the future was balancing on my back—I sensed it there, resting on the point right at the top of my spine.”
And, finally, there is Juanlan, a young Chinese woman in China at the end of the twentieth century who had started on a path to independence by graduating from college, only to be pulled back to her hometown to care for an ailing parent. Juanlan watches as her sister-in-law is brought low by pregnancy. She staves off seemingly inevitable domesticity by having an affair with a married man: “She has a live wire inside her, a little burning blue coil. Usually, she can hide it, tamp it down, so that it feels only like the smoldering coals of impatience. But it’s always there, and it’s not anger and it’s not passion . . . but both these feelings at once, and others besides.”
The rebellions depicted in Patterson’s novel are not only personal ones. The stories are told in the context of the turn-of-the-century Boxer Rebellion in which Chinese nationalists violently rebelled against foreigners and Christians, including Addie and her family, murdering more than two hundred missionaries and tens of thousands of Chinese Christians. Patterson echoes this bloody historical episode in Juanlan’s story by exploring modern Chinese attitudes toward foreign influence, a tangle of fascination and resentment.
The story lines are intertwined—a few chapters of Addie, a few chapters of Juanlan, and so on—with linkages between them of shared places and objects and family relationships. This woven structure gives energy to each woman’s story and invites us to let the past impose upon and inform the present. The four strands of the novel, however, compete at times for the reader’s attention rather than weaving together into a cohesive narrative. Juanlan’s story in particular feels like a distraction at times from that of generations of women in a single American family. Juanlan’s story is as well-told as the others and does an impressive job painting a vivid portrait of modern Chinese life, but the linkages with the other women are too slight to fully satisfy. This story line shifts the focus of the novel from women’s search for identity toward rebellion in the more political, historical sense. It emphasizes the relationship between China and America, between foreigners and locals. It’s a worthy topic, of course, but here it must compete with the more thoroughly explored themes of intergenerational family and the restrictions on women in the American heartland over the last century.
Patterson has a gift for fluid storytelling and evocative prose. Each section of the book pulls the reader forward with a need to understand the connections between the story lines and the resolutions of the conflicts. Will Addie be killed by the Boxers? Will Louisa finally carry a child to term? Will Hazel’s adultery be exposed? Will Juanlan leave her parents to seek her own fate? These are only a handful of the narrative threads in Patterson’s web of women rebelling against societal expectations. The women in this deeply layered and skillfully narrated novel must rebel against who they are supposed to be, only then discovering who they actually are.
Jennifer Wisner Kelly’s stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in the Massachusetts Review, Greensboro Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Poets & Writers, and Colorado Review. Most recently, she received artist residencies at the Ucross Foundation, Jentel Foundation, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts. Ms. Kelly is the Book Review Editor for fiction and nonfiction titles at Colorado Review.