Gina Frangello Writes Complex Women. Is That Why She’s “Unlikeable?”

Gina Frangello, author of Blow Your House Down: A Story of Family, Feminism, and Treason (Photo credit: Courtesy of the author)

In her new memoir Blow Your House Down: A Story of Family, Feminism, and Treason, author Gina Frangello performs a deft juggling act, exploring a multitude of factors that led to a dramatic midlife reckoning: the death of her best friend, a secret affair that contributed to the end of her marriage, her role as an overextended caregiver to her children and aging parents, and her own experience with cancer. In telling these stories, Frangello draws from a range of narrative and poetic traditions. The first section of the book, “The Story of A,”  is a set of meditations (“A is for Adulteress,” “A is for Accused”) inspired by both Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) and children’s alphabet books. Later sections of the book play with other organizing principles and move through time in dynamic ways.

Blow Your House Down has been widely acclaimed, receiving starred reviews in multiple publications. In a review for the Los Angeles Times, Meredith Maran calls it Frangello’s “most lyrical, adventurous and important work.” At the same time, the book has garnered attention for a review in the New York Times charging that Frangello’s narration is “dripping with rage” to the extent that it renders her unreliable—a critique with familiar gendered implications. Bitch recently spoke to Frangello, who is donating her royalties to Deborah’s Place, an organization that helps unhoused women in Chicago, about the response to her book, along with the topics of desire, caregiving, and middle age.

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Some readers have been quick to identify rage as the book’s driving emotion. I read your narrator as a woman driven by many emotions, but mainly guilt and desire. Rage feels like a minor part of her emotional landscape, but I’m wondering what your assessment is. Can you speak to the emotional core of this book? 

I agree with your assessment, and it’s a weird and delicate thing. On the one hand it’s like: Yay rage! I believe that women, people of color, and all different types of marginalized voices have had their rage suppressed and demonized for far too long. It’s not that it’s a nonexistent part of the book, but there is a kind of groupthink where once one emotion has been named and hyped in the media it becomes a talking point for a book, in both positive and negative ways. People who are loving the book are celebrating the rage in the book. I don’t want to silence [them] or say that’s not valid.

But as the author, it has been a surprise to suddenly be a poster girl for rage. I don’t consider it to be the driving emotion of either the book or my actual life. Since the age of 11 I have been an observer of the ways in which women, children, and various populations have been abused and mistreated with zero consequence, and also the carefulness with which women and people of color have to present themselves without rage. [I’m] grateful for any way that my book is contributing to that conversation, and yet also know that I wrote the book mostly from a place of loss, love, desire, grief, guilt. I’ve wanted women to read the book and feel seen, but, as a former therapist, I also believe that any one emotion dwelled on exclusively would curtail a person. I would never have set out to write a rage book because that wouldn’t have been an accurate representation of my experiences and the range of what it is to be a person.

Blow Your House Down: A Story of Family, Feminism, and Treason by Gina Frangello (Photo credit: Counterpoint)

Your narrator strikes me as unflinchingly self-critical and self-reflective, and this makes her immensely likable to me. Yet I keep seeing references to your narrator’s unlikability. Are folks conflating likability with moral purity?

The majority of the critical response to the book has been really positive, so I have to assume people who read the book didn’t find me to be some kind of demon shrew. But there is a long ongoing conversation in literature about [heroines] who [aren’t] conventionally sympathetic, and there’s a difference between [being] conventionally sympathetic [and being] likable. Those two things are sometimes conflated in the conversation.

I would agree that [my narrator] is not a conventionally sympathetic heroine; she has an affair she keeps secret for three years. And that’s not in keeping with the idea that we often expect our female protagonists or narrators to be inspirational figures—to be people who are going to teach us how to live, inspire us to be better people. I run across this issue in my fiction because I favor messy characters who make mistakes. I like to challenge the idea that the role of a woman protagonist is to be a lifestyle guru. My own personal view about literature is that we grow in empathy through reading, and the closer we can get to the wire of the emotion of the character, the more we are pushed beyond our natural boundaries of empathy or judgment.

Any woman who steps outside the box of being inspirational and, as you said, morally virtuous can be branded as unsympathetic quite easily. That is a different discussion than likability because many of us do like characters who we consider to be unsympathetic. People liked Hannibal Lecter for whatever bizarre reason; more books were written because people wanted to read more about Hannibal Lecter. And while I certainly don’t question that there are people who are going to read the book and find me unlikable, I don’t think that everyone who has used that term necessarily means it in the same way.

Do we even worry about whether male characters are likable or sympathetic?

I don’t think we ever worry about that. In some ways, we are [now] revisiting certain male writers of the past and questioning not only their actual lives but also the way they portrayed characters or themselves. But, to put it mildly, I don’t think we would have that discussion about a male character who has committed infidelity. Sexual indiscretions, while certainly not ideal, are quite everyday crimes. I myself am not pro-infidelity or pro-lies, so I don’t mind when people read the book and say, What the fuck was she thinking?

One of the reasons I was even interested in writing about the affair was the fact that I felt I had belied many of my longstanding beliefs, principles, and ideas about myself. All serious literature should pose questions. [The book] asks: Why were you inconsistent? Once you have moved outside of the moral circle you thought encompassed you, what now? How do you go on to prove your reliability, your trustworthiness, and your loyalty to the people in your life?  Those truths exist in tandem: On the one hand, yes, men get away with this; it’s so common as to be cliché. On the other hand, yes, women are very much demonized for the everyday crimes that people think are wholly typical for men. At the same time, the problem is we think of them as wholly typical for men.

Your narrative of coming into your own desire and claiming agency during midlife rings so true for me, and it strikes me that one of the factors that pushed you to overhaul your life and claim space for yourself was simple exhaustion from caregiving. Can you talk about the relationship between caregiving and desire?

I’m interested in the fact that we’re even talking about this because so much discussion of this book revolves solely around infidelity. It’s a big part of the book, but it’s by no means the only thing going on. My parents are major characters in the book, my identity as a mother, my loss of my closest friend—and then, of course, I get breast cancer, go through chemo, have a hip replacement. I didn’t really view that I had written a book about one thing. One of the reasons the book takes a lot of different formal styles is that I was telling many stories and they didn’t all [lend] themselves to the same type of narrative.

A lot of women are expected to wear so many hats, [and] we become so fatigued that we get numb. One of the things that happens when a person becomes exhausted and numb is that desire is very hard to tap into, particularly within [an] environment in which there’s already sadness and marital conflict. I had always thought of myself as a very sexual person…and it evaporated. Desire had become very marginalized as a part of my identity, to the point that I couldn’t even quite remember what I had ever found so interesting about sex.

Sometimes, something comes in from the outside and brings you to life again in a certain way, and part of that awakening of desire has to do with having to step outside your real life and obligations. It’s problematic, but I don’t think it’s uncommon. Oftentimes there’s just an exhaustion among women in middle age who are in that sandwich generation between parents and children. We don’t tend to look at middle-aged women, mothers, those who are providing care to others, those who have lost body parts, or [those] who have gone through illness as sexual beings, and we don’t tend to think of desire as a big motivator in their lives. And if it’s not, that’s okay. I know plenty of women in those situations who are like The idea of falling in love sounds exhausting; I just want a glass of wine and The Daily Show. That’s how I felt for a long time until I fell crazy in love, and then it was like, That’s right. This is a part of life. It drives songs, it drives literature, it drives poetry, and it’s such a huge part of the human experience. [It] doesn’t have an expiration date. It doesn’t have an age limit. I was blindsided by it, but it was also an incredibly intense awakening to my own humanity and my own experience of being alive.

Any woman who steps outside the box of being inspirational and morally virtuous can be branded as unsympathetic quite easily.

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I’m also interested in talking beyond the central narrative of the affair in your book, and hoped we might talk about the character Kathy, the friend who is situated in the story to hold as much importance as your husband and your lover. Can you talk about how she fits into the framework?

I became a mother at 32 when I adopted my daughters. I love being a mom and it took a lot of my emotional energy, but I hadn’t realized the role my female friendships played in my believing I had a full life and I was a happy person. Kathy was a really compelling and complicated woman. She was a somewhat high-maintenance friend, and I needed a high-maintenance friend because I was trying not to look at certain things in my life. So, between having three kids and having this high-maintenance friend and having my parents downstairs who needed me, I was really able to not look at a lot of things. When Kathy died, I missed her as a human being. But also, suddenly there was just this big swath of emotional space: Kathy had been the place I had put a lot of my loneliness. She was very available. And until the last two years of her life, she wasn’t in a stable relationship with a partner, so I had been extremely central in her life since we [were] 16 years old. I don’t think I had ever realized how much of a blank hole there would be in my life once she was gone.

It’s complicated because I don’t think I would have seen that coming. I knew I loved Kathy, I knew we were incredibly close friends, but had no idea I needed her at least as much as she needed me. I thought, I’m just making space for Kathy, but it turned out that that was not true. She was giving me space that I really needed to avoid seeing how lonely I was. Sometimes I do wish my parents and Kathy and mothering and illness were more central to this conversation. Janet Burroway has this quote where she says in fiction, only trouble is interesting. I would say trouble is maybe most interesting when someone brings it upon themself.

This story has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.

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Jennifer Berney is the author of The Other Mothers, a memoir about queer family-building and the patriarchal roots of the fertility industry. You can follow her on Twitter.