First Published: 1943 (Sort of Books edition 2010)
My copy: borrowed from the Library where I work
Memorable quote: “She did not have the courage to stop from doing what she wanted to do. She knew that it would not make her happy, because only the dreams of crazy people come true.”
This fairly slim volume was Tennessee Williams’ favourite book, and it’s not hard to see why. Written in sparse prose that is deceptively easy to read, Bowles’ tale of two society women who follow their own impulses is at once quirky and suffused with melancholy. Wealthy singleton Christina Goering abandons her comfortable family mansion in pursuit of “sainthood,” a path which takes her to a tiny squalid house and through a series of encounters with increasingly unpleasant men. Meanwhile Mrs Copperfield, reluctantly accompanying her husband on a cruise to Panama, finds herself falling in love with a local prostitute and decamping to her brothel home. In their very different ways both women unquestioningly pursue their wants in a way that is curiously weak-willed, and the novel offers a cutting – if oblique – examination of women’s positions in post war American society.
Yet what is truly surprising about this book is not its plot so much as its tone. There is something playful, almost childlike about Bowles’ writing and in her hands even the most seemingly mundane conversations take unexpected slants. With two characters so lacking in volition Two Serious Ladies would probably be more of a frustrating read if it didn’t have such an engrossing, dreamlike quality to it. There is a real pleasure to just going with the flow of this eccentric tale and letting the experiences of the dual protagonists wash over you. Pleasure, but suffering too – as Christina and Mrs Copperfield discover, the two sensations are often intermixed.