And the Mountains Echoed: Epic Bechdel Test Fail
I'm about halfway through Khaled Hosseini's And the Mountains Echoed, which is failing the Bechdel test spectacularly so far. Let me count the ways in which this book is getting under my skin in a not-so-good way (be warned that there are major spoilers for the book):
+ The two central female characters, Nila and her adopted daughter Pari, are constantly at odds with each other. I get this. Stories need conflict. But Nila never tells Pari she's adopted. She ~buys Pari from her poverty-stricken family but she's passively cruel to her, even going so far as to act like a "jealous lover" (rather than a "concerned mother") when her boyfriend pays 14-year-old Pari too much attention. Pari gets her own back by sleeping with the boyfriend (ten years later, when she's "all grown up", but throughout those ten years she fantasises about the boyfriend).
+ The boyfriend in question, a man named Julien, is described as someone who has aged well, in a way that would "infuriate most women his age". This description kind of mystifies me. Why would ~women his age be infuriated that he looks good? Why not the men? Is it because he drives the women wild? Are there no gay men in Paris who may also be infuriated by his well-preservedness?
+ Pari's only female friend, so far, is Collette. They are flatmates, but never get along. Collette is loud and audacious and angry all the time, and Pari goes along to protests and demonstrations with her mostly because she's afraid of pissing her off. It's at one of these protests that she hooks up with Julien for the first time. His pick-up line is that she looks like she's in need of rescuing. No, really. He 'rescues' her from the boredom and annoyance of watching Collette bully other people.
+ Did I say there were no gay men in this book? The same book contains an astonishingly sensitive, beautiful even, portrayal of a love story between two men, Pari's uncle Nabi and his employer Suleiman. Even in this relationship, there is a snide dismissal of women: Suleiman is Nila's husband. When he suffers a paralysing stroke, she abandons him and goes off to Paris with Pari, leaving Nabi to care devotedly for him. (Yes, the play on Pari's name is deliberate. As the narrative has already told me three times, it's "like Paris without the S.")
+ Nila dies, but not before giving a candid interview to a journal (she's a poet) about how awful her father was and how gay her husband was. Pari knew neither of these things, but as soon as she reads the interview, she's convinced that Nila's dad couldn't have been all that bad, and that Nila has made up or exaggerated the stuff about his cruelty. She also muses that her mum must have been a ~really good pretender to have written all that angsty poetry about difficulties that she never really faced. Seriously. She just ~assumes from the interview that Nila's father must have been a good guy, and couldn't possibly have been as awful as Nila makes him out to be.
+ Want more Bechdel test fail? Like, epic fail? There's a pair of twin sisters, Parwana and Masooma. Masooma is the beautiful twin, and Parwana is the plain one no one likes. (I kid you not. ~No one likes her, not even when she's a baby, because her sister is so much prettier.) So, despite their being twins, Parwana hates Masooma's guts. Enough to push her out of a tree. Following which Masooma is paralysed for life, and Parwana marries the love of her sister's life. Later, she leaves Masooma to die on an isolated road (at Masooma's request).
And at this point I'm like, seriously? Seriously, Hosseini? Whyyyy. Why would you do this. The book started off so very very well, but it's been all downhill from there. At the point where I left off, Pari has cancelled her plans to go to Afghanistan and discover her roots because she finds out she's pregnant. Three sentences later she's pregnant again. Because this is what women do in this book: give birth, or buy other people's children if they can't give birth (because of course motherhood is essentially to a woman's identity); hate their mothers; hate their daughters; hate their sisters; maim their sisters; kill their sisters; hate their female flatmates but have sex with their flatmates' male friends; and so on, ad nauseum. I'm going to finish reading the book because I need something to entertain me on the commute, and I'm curious about what happens to Pari next, because Hosseini is good at plot (and possibly at the characterisation of men). But, as you might understand, a bit of venting was necessary.