Penelope Mortimer's The Pumpkin Eater was an unusual yet mesmerizing read, unlike anything that I've come across in contemporary fiction. Its no-holed-bar bluntness and use of flippant observation makes it a cross between a comedy and tragedy. The best categorization that I would put it into would be a pre-feminist tragicomedy, because there are components of it that are wittily absurd and other elements that are genuinely moving-for deep human issues are introduced, like an unhappy marriage, infidelity and so forth-but they are tackled with a sarcastic edge and solutions that almost verges on the dark and terrifying. It is as if there is no other vestige of hope available to the protagonist, so there is always that clinginess for whatever is available for survival (in the patient's case, a gaggle of kids and constant pregnancies), a gossamer thread that is always on the cusp of splitting apart and blowing away.
The bulk of the novel takes place on a therapist's couch as well as through a series of flashbacks, whereby Mrs. Armitage just talks about her childhood upbringing, assorted marriages, associates and the emptiness that all of them bring to her. With initial reluctance, she gradually bears out her soul to her psychiatrist and peels away the many layers of her mundane existence and life, a life that she is not really in control of because, in essence, it is all under control for her. She has a successful husband, Jake, a screenwriter and a whole bunch of kids along with an elegant home as well as a glass tower that's in the process of being built, for do not all wealthy and eminent people live in glass towers? Glass does break, but Mrs. Armitage is cracking first. In any event, everything is always taken care of for her that her presence is always limited. Even so, it allows her to "see" the unbecoming behavior of her husband's misdeeds, for he has a loyalty to no one but himself. That is Mrs. Armitage's first great tragedy. Secondly, it is her kids. It's not that she doesn't love them, exactly, but there is a disconnect. Mrs. Armitage is a mother, but she is not motherly; the kids symbolize the pleasure of former husbands and lovers and the newness of first time love. Yet, what happens when that giddiness of romantic love, even lust, is over? What is life all about then? What is the meaning of it all? That is her search, a place for herself.
The Pumpkin Eater is almost-and hopefully this assessment is not too far fetched-a novelization of Betty Friedan's work of nonfiction, The Feminine Mystique, or at least the problems chronicled in it. Though largely autobiographical of Mortimer's own life, the issues in The Pumpkin Eater casts a wider net of the human experience, specifically the female experience. Initially, I enjoyed the forthright writing style of Mortimer. Then I began to find the character of Mrs. Armitage to be whiny and edgy and then just lethargic and apathetic. It was all so cyclical and bland. Yet, upon further reading, that, to me, was the gist of the whole novel, and from that angle, The Pumpkin Eater becomes an all together different kind of reading experience. Thought provoking and unique.