Long Division and Penelope’s Honor

January 10, 2015

I was looking through my blog categories yesterday to see how I could simplify and get rid of a few. I came across “review” and thought -when have I ever done a review? Here’s one and now here’s another. I picked up the book Long Division: A Novel (also titled ‘Miss Harper Can Do It’) by Jane Berentson years ago. I was doing my usual random tour of Barnes and Nobles when I came across this book. I’m not sure what drew me to it but I settled on it found a sit and started reading. I couldn’t put it down, two days in a row I went to the book store to read this book. I was so in to it that I told my self there was no point in buying it and I could just come to the cafe to read (cafe and book store are the same place) but I didn’t and I eventually forgot about the little book.

Fast forward to my technologically enhanced life and I decided to get it on my kindle. The spark, the inability to put the book down, just wasn’t there anymore and so I abandoned it once again. Last night however I opened it back up and read until 3am when I finished. Whether it was the spark or pure insomnia I don’t know but I didn’t put it down until I read every word -with the exclusion of footnotes (why would you put footnotes in a fiction book?). So I will warn by say this book doesn’t get much of a halal rating and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to my fellow muslim. With that out the way, let’s talk about the book.

***Complete Spoiler***
The book is about an American woman, Annie, in her mid twenties whose husband David (it’s her boyfriend but let’s say husband anyway) is off in the Iraqi war. Before he leaves they are madly is love, everything is fine, and everyone supports their union. He leaves for war and she finds support from her parents, an old lady in a nursing home (Loretta), a pet chicken, her colleagues and her best friend Gus. She is alone an lonely. Though her life continues she misses him terribly. As time moves on she depends increasingly upon Loretta and Gus. Her love for David begins to dwindle as time moves on due to their separation, their superficial “How are you? I’m fine” conversations and her growing feeling the they share little in common. It comes as no surprise that old friend Gus increasingly fills the void. Both surprisingly and unsurprisingly her and David do not last and she moves on to Gus.

The story is told in a way you’d expect a typical young white Amrican girl to speak -lots of sarcasm, melodrama and overanalyzing. And that is what makes the book pretty funny. If you’re willing it can also lead to some deeply philosophical questions especially about relationships. When the Gus character first appears on the scenes I tell the character, sometimes out loud, “No, don’t!”. Spending time with someone is an easy trap to making you feel you’re in love with them. Distance can widen the gap between love making you question whether it’s real. Or is it the other way around? Does distance, as the old saying goes, “make the heart grow fonder”? And would you only fall for someone you spend time with if the love is really there? Do you have an obligation to your current relationship no matter how bad or boring it is to try your absolute best before bowing out? I spoke about some of this in The Great Divorce but the questions still rattle inside me. An in this situation in particular -Is it honorable to leave a man at war?

Penelope weavingWhich brings me to Penelope. Penelope you may know, if you’re American and went through high school, is the wife of Odysseus. Without going back in to English class 101 it suffices to say he was off at war (and other adventures) for 10 years with no one knowing whether he was alive or dead and she waited for his return.

Many people write off this bit as misogynist because Odysseus was not faithful (physically) to his wife while she was, they claim this sets up an unfair standard that women must be chase and male chastity is of no importance. While there’s value to that argument the misfortune is Odysseus’s not Penelope’s. It’s not unfortunate that Penelope didn’t get to live by the same (low) standards of Odysseus’s infidelity. If their should be any equality created it should be that his standards are raised to her level of fidelity. But more than that I see the act of Penelope in and of itself as honorable. How honorable it is to wait on the love of your life instead of giving up and jumping on any of the many suitable suitors who came seeking her hand. The honor is her honor. It not simply an act of loyalty but an act of honoring her heart, her body and her household instead of selling it to the highest bidder. Would it be wrong if she did decided to get married after 2 years of missing Odysseus? No but there would be nothing honorable about that, it would be acceptable run of the mill that’s life kind of stuff, it wouldn’t be worth thinking about, contemplating or theorizing.

So the woman, Annie, in Long Division didn’t get this honor. But I didn’t think she was a bad person for falling out of love and moving on. It just felt very “basic”. It was what anyone would do, it wasn’t an exceptional act it was just typical. I don’t think anyone will be talking about or analyzing Long Division for hundreds of years to come because in the end it’s not that interesting. David moves away, his girl gets close to her male best friend, her and David are not more, she moves on to best friend. Nothing quite remarkable about that and though Gus, the male best friend is quite the catch, I think we’re clued in willingly or not that this won’t last either, Gus says in speaking about his last break up, “I was tired of her. Isn’t that the reason? I mean, unless one person does something particularly evil to the other person, most relationships end at the pasty hands of boredom”. Boredom.

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