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Originally published Sunday, June 21, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"A Short History of Women": Five generations, looking for answers

Kate Walbert's ambitious novel "A Short History of Women" follows five generations of women in their struggle for balance in career, marriage and motherhood.

Special to The Seattle Times

"A Short History of Women"

by Kate Walbert

Scribner, 237 pp., $24

What, wonders a character in Kate Walbert's "A Short History of Women," is The Woman Question? Dorothy, a woman in her 70s in the midst of a presentation on Florence Nightingale, replies, "It's what they called it then." The questioner persists — called what?

"It. Us. The problem of us," says Dorothy.

Walbert's novel, ambitious yet succinct, follows five generations of women, each struggling with her own variant of the question as she tries (or declines) to find balance between career, marriage and motherhood. Dorothy Trevor is a suffragette in early World War I England who starves herself to death for her cause, leaving her young children behind.

Her daughter, Evelyn Townsend, makes her way to America and academia, focusing her life on her work. Evelyn's niece Dorothy Townsend endures 1970s consciousness-raising, a lost child and a marriage that grows stale. Dorothy's daughter Liz, a privileged Manhattan mom, seeks reassurance from her 6-year-old. And Liz's niece Dora, set to graduate as part of Yale's class of 2011, is introduced to us via her Facebook profile and a few impatient words on the phone.

"A Short History of Women" unfolds as a series of episodes in these women's lives, jumping back and forth across time. We travel abruptly from Liz's increasingly drunken play date (she and the other mother met at an "enlightenment session" entitled "Raising a Calm Child in the Age of Anxiety") in 2007 to Dorothy Trevor's hospital bed in 1914, as the patient floats in and out of her past, and back to the present again.

Some of these scenes are wickedly funny, such as the consciousness- raising group: The women pass a tennis ball as they raise — but don't actually discuss — topics enumerated in the minutes as "having to do with invisibility," "abortions," "definition of frigid?," "our privilege to ask," and "laundry, etcetera." Others are poignant, as when Dorothy Townsend tells her husband of her unhappiness: The declaration "completely unends him, and time folds in like a paper airplane to sail weightlessly away."

Walbert, who previously published the novels "Our Kind" (a 2004 National Book Award finalist) and "The Gardens of Kyoto" and the short-story collection "Where She Went," finds subtly different narrative voices for each of the women (though only Evelyn, whose voice begins and ends the book, is rendered in the first person).

There is, of course, no real answer to The Woman Question; only a delicately traced line of daughters and mothers finding their way, and finding their peace. In her own last days, Evelyn drifts back to her 13th year and her mother's forbidden hospital room, where she curls into her mother's bed. "[If] I get caught, if I am found here, I am sorry, I will tell them: There is nowhere else to be."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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