I nearly cheered when I found out Christina Hopkinson had a new novel. Her debut, Izobel Brannigan.com, is a favorite of mine; I still think about Iz, whose discovery of a website about herself inspired her not only to confront her stalker, but to rethink the direction of her life. (Sadly, Izobel Brannigan.com was reprinted in the USA as Cyber Cinderella, possibly the most misleading title in the history of history.)
The Pile of Stuff at the Bottom of the Stairs introduces us to Mary, a British mother of two in her mid-thirties. Mary is not happy. Simply put, her husband, Joel, is a slob: He leaves garbage, wet towels, and dirty clothes around and ignores her (or, worse, tells her to “chillax”) when she brings these habits up. At the start of the story, Mary decides to keep a tally of the times that Joel annoys her and the times he pleases her, with the goal of reevaluating their relationship after six months… and possibly ending it.
Mary’s qualms may seem small, but they’re indicative of deeper problems with the state of her and Joel’s relationship. Joel takes for granted that Mary will clean up after him as well as doing the bulk of child-rearing, including finding and paying babysitters when they’ll both be at work. Basically, he expects her to be a wife in an uncomfortably patriarchal use of the word. She focuses on tidiness as a microcosm of the value, or lack thereof, that her husband places on her.
Oh, and there’s another problem: Mary is crushing hard on her best friend’s girlfriend.
When I opened The Pile of Stuff at the Bottom of the Stairs, I expected another well-crafted, surprisingly philosophical tale of human interactions. What I didn’t expect was the copious amount of queer-related content that Hopkinson’s latest includes. For all of Brannigan’s merits, it was heteronormative as all get-out; even minor characters who were initially sexually ambiguous turned out to be straight.
Obviously, the putatively straight heroine with a gay best friend is a tired trope, but I can’t remember the last time I read a story in which said friend is a woman rather than a femme-y dude. For that matter, it’s fairly rare for lesbians to appear in relationship-centric fiction (I try to avoid the term “chick lit,” as I find it almost as sexist and useless as “chick flick”) at all. While Pile of Stuff has plenty of memorable scenes with Mary’s children and wealthy frienemies, her friendship with Becky is one of my favorite parts of the novel. Becky’s relationship, with a gorgeous philanderer named Cara, is also in crisis, and the besties have been confidants since college. Mary just doesn’t tell Becky that she thinks about Cara while sleeping with her husband.
Same-sex desire between women is spectacularly normalized in Pile of Stuff. Mary’s feelings are only treated as problematic in regards to her marriage; she never feels the need to question her identity, and homophobia is rarely referenced by anyone. Unfortunately, Cara is kind of a slimeball. Like Mary, she’s not great at communicating with her partner; unlike Mary, she doesn’t appear to care about Becky, or anyone other than herself, at all. And, of course, she’s obsessed with straight women. Is anyone else sick of the “predatory gay” trope?
Mary could easily have been a cartoon, too: the restless married woman who wants too much. It’s to Hopkinson’s credit that Mary is continuously sympathetic; though she often covets others’ money, she’s quick to remind herself that she’s fortunate to be as well off as she is already. As I’ve said, Mary’s concerns about her marriage are also deceptively complex, and while Pile of Stuff has a clear story arc, Hopkinson doesn’t insult us with a pat ending. Instead, the narrative of everyday moments of family, work, and conversation is interspersed with explorations of the second shift and the importance of achieving gender equality (personally as well as professionally) throughout. This is a book that’s not afraid to use the word “feminism,” even if its one second-waver, Joel’s mother, is a bit of a New Age-y stereotype.
Pile of Stuff’s most enduring question is what it takes to grow as a partner, parent, and worker while preserving respect and passion for one’s beloved. Like Izobel Brannigan, Mary is simultaneously cynical and reverent toward love:
I want to go back to the way we were, before we had children—except with the children, of course. But I’m not sure that the way we loved each other is compatible with having the boys. It was so self-absorbed. You think to love someone is an act of selflessness, but really you love the reflection of your best self that you see in their mirror.
While there are no easy answers, Mary’s negotiations of these balances make for compelling reading. I was sorry to see Hopkinson’s latest slice of life end.