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Michelle Magorian: A Little Love Song

August 16, 2010

This is partly reposted from something I wrote several years ago on my first blog calm below that poisoned river wild. I was reminded of it by Rach’s last post, and I thought I’d repost it as A Little Love Song is still one of my happy-making books. Many spoilers ahoy, and it’s not so much a review as a defence of the book from a particular criticism.

One of the reviews on Amazon said -‘As a feminist it makes me sad.’ Which I completely disagree with. Well, I disagree that it’s an anti-feminist book. There are parts of it which make me sad as a feminist, or just as a person empathetic towards other women, because they describe the suffering and oppression of women. I don’t agree with the reviewer that heterosexual romance is inherently anti-feminist – rather it’s sexist and heteronormative to assume that it is, or should be, the only focus of women’s lives and women’s writing.

As the title and the reviews on Amazon suggest, A Little Love Song a romance. A sweet, believable romance. And that is one of the reasons that I love it. Because I’m a sucker for the fairy tale ending where the character I’ve been rooting for gets together with the one I’ve known all along is truly right for them*.

And A Little Love Song does have a beautifully happy ending. I sometimes read just the last third, because it’s ridiculously uplifting and lovely and nothing bad happens. (Well, three of the main characters get sent off to dangerous situations because it is still World War II, but you don’t genuinely believe they’ll come to any harm.)

It contains a critique of social attitudes towards, and treatment of, unmarried mothers. It highlights how women transgressing gender norms were labelled as mentally ill, and the cruelty used to force them into submission.

Although the focus of the novel is the traditional heterosexual romance, the relationship shown are egalitarian, based on mutual respect. Both sisters are relieved at how unimportant their beauty, or lack of beauty, seem to be to the men they end up with, and both find love alongside independence and self-confidence. For Roe in particular, that confidence comes from her success as a writer, and supporting a friend during the birth of her son, as well as her new relationship.

The importance of friendships between women is also a key theme, meaning that it certainly passes the Bechdal-Wallace rule.

There are also examples of how ideas about how conventional masculinity are damaging- Alec is respected as a ‘proper man’ because of his status as a war hero, but at the same time others see his masculinity as eroded because his mental illness, which is a direct result of the war, for example his fiancĂ©e leaves him because she can’t cope with him crying. And Derry tries to bolster his masculinity by losing his virginity after being rejected from the military. The scene where he and Rose have sex is consensual**, but that’s pretty much the only redeeming thing about it. While that scene is disturbing, the way that Roe comes to terms with it as not her fault, and not something that will ruin her life is uplifting. She learns that it’s not sex itself that’s traumatic, but sex with someone she doesn’t really desire and who doesn’t respect her wishes.

I’d certainly recommend A Little Love Song to feminists who want to read some romance without having to silence their inner politically-correct shoutiness. Although I would say that the sex scene between Rose and Derry, and the descriptions of Hilda’s time in the lunatic asylum are potentially triggering.

*I’m now also rather partial to the endings where the main character tells the unsuitable suitor to fuck off
and finds a fulfilling life on their own.

**In retrospect, I’m not sure if I would describe it as consensual, but I don’t have the book with me to check the details. Rose certainly does not give enthusiastic consent.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 17, 2010 5:16 pm

    i had totally forgotten about this book but loved it as a teen! i agree that it’s feminist, it was the first time i understood about what happened to unmarried mothers, women in asylums, shell shock and the pressures for women to have sex they didn’t want.

    and i wanted to be a writer like rose.

    will look it up again, thanks for the reminder.

  2. August 19, 2010 9:12 pm

    I think I would’ve identified a lot more strongly with Rose if it hadn’t been for the fact that she could just stop eating so easily. Still, she did feel like a proper character, so that was nice.
    Actually, I think that’s something that Michelle Magorian does really well – you always end up feeling like you really know about her characters.

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