Title: The Metal Girl
Author: Judy Sandra
Genre: Women’s Fiction/Psychological
Paperback: 194 pages
Publisher: JSM Books
Point of Sale: Amazon or JSM Books
Reviewed By: Cheryl Anne Gardner
Cover Excerpt: During the dreary month of March in Copenhagen in the early 1970s, a 25‑year‑old American woman travels on a solitary quest to become, in her mind, a "woman‑of‑the‑world." In fact, she is lost, adrift, dislocated, not only from familiar surroundings but from her innermost being: "It was the era of rising feminist consciousness, but my mind had not yet caught up to my age and my consciousness was not the part of me that was rising up that winter."
As the story begins we find our protagonist living in a cheap hotel located in Copenhagen’s red light district. The hotel is run by an odd old couple named the Blumendhals. However, not too far into the story, the Blumendhals disappear never to be heard from again and we find the new hotel management, much to our protagonist’s displeasure, are completely the opposite of the comforting grandparents she was used to. It’s not a pleasant interaction when our protagonist finds herself confronted with Elke, a stereotypical Scandinavian blond bombshell, and, who we assume is her German Tank of a husband, Manfred.
Now one might think it odd that our young woman, who is obviously at a crossroads in her life, would choose to go to Denmark in the winter, but I found the location rather fitting for someone who was obviously suffering from depression, and anyone who has suffered from even mild depression understands that loneliness is cold, silent, sitting on a rock in the middle of nowhere looking out at nothing through the grey, much like the Little Mermaid statue that resides in the Copenhagen harbour at Langelinie, and is pretty much the only thing our protagonist manages to truly connect with, understandably. Touching the statue is only one of a litany of mundane adventures our displaced American has in this strange land, and while she professes to want to be “a woman of the world” all she really wants to be is a woman other than the one she is, so much so, she either deifies or vilifies every single woman she meets in an effort to recreate herself somewhere in the middle, somewhere acceptable.
Having recently been the victim of a failed relationship and a failed career, our protagonist is hiding, from the world, from the feminist consciousness and all the expectations that came along with that, and most of all, she is hiding from herself. She slathers herself in the mundane like it’s a Disney Vacation, until one evening at a Jazz club where she meets Elizabeth and Olaf: Olaf who attracts her with his handsome face, kindness, and charm, and his friend Elizabeth, whom she finds the most alluring of all -- beautiful, poetic, intelligent, mysterious, wise and tragic. Yes, her obsessive fixation with Elizabeth takes a sobering turn later in the story when she finds Elizabeth is NOT the ideal she had imagined.
As the story progresses, we have meals, and drinking, and polite surface conversations. There is no wild sex, no grand epiphanies, and no finding one’s soul mate; it’s just a bunch of people struggling through everyday life trying to make and keep meaningful connections. It’s the ordinariness that’s important here. The main character's experiences are real, conflicted, and so significantly insignificant. The book doesn’t try to shock the reader by trying to ascribe some monumental meaning to it. It simply tells its tale, leaving the melodrama off the page. Sure, this book might be challenging for some readers, as the interpretation is left entirely up to the individual. Some might interpret her struggle as a sexual one because of the rather overt way she relates to Elizabeth and to her sexual experiences with Olaf, Elke, and Manfred. Some might see it as a struggle to find her inner feminist (if there is one), and some might see it as her struggle to reconcile her desire for the old dogmatic social conventions instead of the feminist leanings of the time, and some readers might just view it as the wanderlust of a depressive. One thing is certain, nothing is as it seems; even the banality is a lie.
My personal interpretation of our main character is that she was a depressive, but if you have never been exposed to a depressive, you might not feel much sympathy for her, and you might feel the storyline is implausible because, for a vacation, it seems dull and boring, and why on vacation would our main character torment herself for no particular reason. There is only one point in the story where she feels totally happy and fulfilled, and that is when she attends the ballet alone. Of course, the happiness doesn’t last long after she allows the opinion of another to turn her idealistic view of her evening into something pathetic. Obviously she is an attractive and a smart woman, but at this point in the story, she has already been completely stripped of her self-esteem, so she already feels inferior, and throughout the story she is deeply affected by other’s perceptions of her and their opinions. She is awkward and clumsy well beyond the language and the cultural barrier she uses as a shield. She hides from people and even hides from herself. I don’t think she even knows what kind of person she is. Of course Olaf and Elizabeth often comment on this, telling her that she hides her feelings and is mysterious, but in reality, she has no self confidence, and so she is easily led astray in thought and action. It doesn’t take long before she finds herself being seduced by Olaf, the first man who comes across her path and shows any interest in her. Of course sex like that is only momentarily satisfying before the shame and the guilt move in. Her erratic behaviour was a manifestation of that.
The Book reminded me a lot of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, except in this novel, much less hits the page, and as a result, readers might be sharply divided into the love it or hate it camps. This is a story about the rather dull self-imposed exile of a depressed woman where most of the notable events take place off the page. However, unlike The Bell Jar, there is nothing shocking here. Even the sex scenes are kept to the white space. There are no raging emotions and no clichéd neurotic behaviour. When reading this story, it’s much more about what she doesn’t do and doesn’t say than about what she does. You have to read into everything. Our protagonist is self-involved but in sharp contrast to how self-involved people normally behave, she is so hyper-focused on the people around her that they become caricatures of irrational proportions, and this leads her into several unpleasant encounters. Our protagonist is an observer, a voyeur. She watches everyone else living their lives yet is unable to understand how they manage it. It’s not that she doesn’t want to participate; she does and she doesn’t, but I felt it was more of a not knowing how because she was afraid to fail. She can’t understand how Elizabeth can be friends with her ex or how Manfred and Elke can have such an open relationship. I felt it was about the struggle to be a woman in a world where being a woman was no longer so clearly defined. She kept fantasizing about the “couple in the window” and how much she would never “have” that sense of normal intimacy, so when she makes an half-hearted attempt with Olaf, it ends in disaster as predicted.
Eventually our protagonist discovers that she has to define herself and that projecting her conflicted ideals onto others isn’t the best approach, but it’s a whole lot better than locking yourself in a dark and shabby room and obsessing on your perceived inadequacies. Yes, this story is thankfully bereft of the pages and pages of expository monologue often found in this type of story, so you never really know how she is feeling except through her vague and muddled commentary on her surroundings and the goings on around her. How she feels about a meatball is more honest than how she feels about herself, and therein lies the irony.
I thought it was an honest story and very realistic. The book’s ending is optimistic but may leave some readers wanting for an explanation. Personally, I felt the ambiguity suited the situation. Depressed people rarely “know” what’s wrong with them, even after they come out of it. The story is very subtle, and I would liken it in style to Hemingway’s White Elephants, where the reader has to infer much of the meaning. The Metal Girl was a book I put down with an “I wonder” still left on the tip of my tongue. I remember my struggle trying to define myself as a woman, so I can only imagine how difficult it was being in your twenties right smack in the middle of the feminist movement when sexual liberation was the order of the day.
9/10 and on a side note, the editing was quite clean. I only noticed two typos.
This book was reviewed from a submitted ARC and will be given away during one of our Free Book Friday Contests.