I’ve been in a place for the past couple of months where it’s been hard to read anything new. Like my brain is just not willing to focus on a new thing, and the only things that can keep my attention are things I’ve read already, and things I know so well that it’s like snuggling up with my favorite blankie and my teddy bear and listening to my mom tell me a story.
One of the books that has been on the Old Friends list for a long time (as in, I’m on my second copy because the first one was read to death) is The Lady, by Anne McCaffrey. Anne McCaffrey was my gateway into genre fiction as a whole- I was given the first three Pern books as a birthday present in 5th grade (from the same friend who got me into reading romance at not that much older, so we can thank Hannah for a lot of things). My copy of Dragonflight fell apart last year (do we see a pattern?). Anne McCaffrey has been an influential author for over 2/3 of my life.
Of course, one of the things that happens when you read something at a young age is there is stuff that you just don’t get. If I didn’t understand it, I just sort of ignored it (Or had super amazing and sometimes uncomfortable conversations with my mom. One reason my mom is awesome is that she never banned reading material, ever and would answer questions as age-appropriately as she could). This has made rereads of some books to be amaze-balls experiences, and some books to be horrific revelations. Anne McCaffrey can be a mix of the two. There’s a lot of dubious consent to sex, a lot of archaic ideas about homosexuality in her books, and a lot of loose relationships to in-universe continuity.
This book has some of each. On its surface, it’s a coming of age story about a 13 year old girl, Caitriona, in Ireland in 1970. Her family owns a horse farm, and she’s been riding since she could walk. She’s trying to balance the expectations of her non-horse person mother and her desire to be a horsewoman and just figure out who she is. The other part of the story is her father, Michael, and his impossible relationship with his wife and his burgeoning relationship with Selina, an upper-crust society wife who boards her mare at his stable.
Yeah, its one of those.
Caitriona’s mother, Isabel, is described as gently bred and convent reared- she married Michael in the heady days before he shipped off to WWII, and neither one them really understood the other person. Her introduction to sex was…. Not pretty, because she hadn’t been told anything about it, and even though Michael apparently was rather successful with the ladies, he never got her to enjoy it. She suffered him for her sacred Catholic duty, and raised 6 children. Caitriona is the youngest, and Isabel finds her enthusiasm for horses to be unwomanly and almost heretical. She spends a lot of time in fervent prayer, asking the Virgin Mary to make Caitriona stop riding.
(What she thought she was getting into when she married a man who had every intention of getting into the family business of raising and training horses, I don’t know.)
Selina has been boarding her horse at Michael’s stable for year, but they never really interacted until a hunting accident where Caitriona’s pony died. Selina still had her pony from when she was a girl and gave him to Caitrinoa and then agreed to show some of Michael’s horses and it becomes a thing and they make eyes at each other and then Isabel dies and they begin an actual affair.
(We’ll get to that.)
There are a couple of other subplots, too- a visiting American cousin, a horse show season, going on after unexpected deaths, an unplanned pregnancy and who is to blame for it, spousal abuse, an unexpected wedding, and antiqueing.
But those things are not what this book is really about. What this book is about is feminism and the changing roles of women in Ireland. Divorce in Ireland was prohibited by the Constitution until 1996. Sex education was non-existant (Isabel only forgave her mother for not explaining things to her before her wedding not only when she tried to explain things to her oldest daughter before hers), and the American cousin makes judgey faces at the ads for unwed pregnant girls in the newspaper (and an irate father says there’s no way an innocent girl like his daughter could possibly say when her pregnancy was conceived- how would she know?). What happens when a husband dies with huge debt, no will, and never told his wife about the state of their finances? What can she do, when she’s never held a job in her life?
Every woman in this book is faced with a choice about how she will handle her life in a period of unimaginable change, and every man is faced with the fact that change is coming, or change is here, are you going to get run over, get out of the way, or get the hell on board, for the good of your wives, lovers, daughters, sisters?
McCaffrey is not always a subtle writer- a relationship that was bad enough with basic neglect, patronization, and general dumbfuckery implodes with spousal abuse and rape- just in case we didn’t think the husband was worthy of hatred before. Caitriona’s mother is uber-religious, and basically plain doesn’t like her daughter and is flat-out described as frigid. I’ve seen some reviews describe Caitriona as a Mary Sue- she’s an excellent rider and she can draw exceptionally well without training- but like all Mary Sues she’s bad at math as her given flaw (I don’t agree with that assessment at all- I think Caitriona is fairly well-realized and you can see where her decisions come from).
It is uncomfortable that McCaffrey is okay with her heroine committing adultery, but her hero holds off on an affair until after his wife is dead (an affair with the heroine- he’s got a discreet liaison on the side with his wife is alive). It is also a problem that Isabel is so traumatized by her wedding night that she won’t drive by the hotel they stayed in even 20+ years later. As I recall someone asking- what did Michael do to her? And she would submit to his advances even after she’d had a hysterectomy, even though, she says, the Church is very clear that that is only for procreation. I don’t think Isabel would consider that rape (it was an unpleasant duty), Michael almost certainly didn’t, hell, Ireland didn’t recognize that marital rape was a thing until 1990, and McCaffrey seems kind of mixed on the issue (Dubious consent, especially for first times is kind of a regular issue for her). So I still don’t know what to do with that.
But problems aside, this is still one of my go-tos for soothing comfort reading. The groves of the phrases are etched into my brain, and I find them soothing like a worry-stone when I need to read but can’t focus to keep track of something new. There are horses, and there is feminism, with a dash of politics. What more could a girl want?
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