Do you cook, wash the dishes, vacuum, swipe the pet hair off the couch with masking tape, use non-green cleanser in the toilet (because what else can get it clean?), and have no intention of ever washing mould off the bathroom walls? Are you perhaps a housewife, or a working woman who does it all?
In Sheila Ballantyne’s stunning novel, Norma Jean the Termite Queen, housework is driving the heroine, Norma Jean, crazy. Her husband, a professor, thinks her place is in the kitchen, and her three children are non-stop needy unless she parks them in front of cartoons.
She hasn’t been alone in six years. Nor has she done her art.
No wonder she likes to read the newspaper cover to cover. The world has fallen apart: the headlines strengthen her inextricable alienation.
LOCAL TEACHER SUFFERS FATAL HEART ATTACK IN CLEANING ESTABLISHMENT.
WIFE SHOOTS LOVERS IN TUB.
MARGARET MEAD STUDIES HER FAMILY.
MISTAKE BOMBING OF CIVILIANS.
Published in 1975 and out-of-print, Ballantine’s powerful novel is a classic. Her bold style and attention-deficit shifting of Norma Jean’s consciousness make this immensely entertaining. It is a pastiche of Norma Jean’s intelligent, original, humorous stream-of-consciousness; her fantasies of meeting Marcello Mastroianni (she loves 8 and 1/2 and other foreign films) or running away with the cashier at the organic grocery store (which doesn’t have a bathroom, so she has to advise her child to go outside); her fascination with ancient Egyptian culture; memories of college in the ’50s; quotations from ’70s classics like Philip Slater’s The Pursuit of Loneliness and Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex; sessions with a psychiatrist; and incredible sense of isolation as she rebels against the culture.
She also describes scenes from everyday life. When she takes her children to a fair one afternoon, they get stuck in traffic behind an accident and she has to be practical. The children whine, she gives them lollipops, and she is horrified but has to keep it controlled because accidents happen all the time.
Here are some of her observations about being home:
I hate Sundays because Martin always gets the good sections first and I can’t argue with him because I get them the rest of the week. So I sit around, pouring coffee and flipping through the dregs and fillers, biding my time. The children are all afflicted with the aimlessness that pervades everything on Sundays; sometimes they can find a friend to play with, and sometimes not. Good parents usually take their children for a drive somewhere on Sundays, leaving the neighborhood more deserted than ever. When the weather is good, we take ours somewhere too; sometimes we take them hiking through the environment so they will appreciate it when they’re grown, just on the chance that there will be some left.
The novel does not seem dated, except that the politics are more radical. There’s no easy transition in this novel to a new romance or family, as there might be in a pop contemporary novel. Work is needed: not necessarily professional work, but creative work. All the women in the suburbs are “wondering what to do with their lives.” It’s a real, richly colored model of the suburban world. Sheila’s own sculptures in the garage make a statement.
You may say attitudes toward work have changed today. Sure, they have, but there’s still a lot of “work” to be done. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 46.7% of women were working in 2010, and the median weekly wage for women was 81% of a man’s wage. And 53.3% of women are at home.
Is work so great? It’s more about fulfillment (which can be at home) and equal pay for equal work.
Are there any big differences? Norma Jean reads different books, but you’d get the drift if you substituted other books (but it would be a less radical drift). The children play with the same toys: girls with Barbies and boys with action figures. (Norma Jean is appalled to find them playing with Barbie and Ken in the missionary position: she had forbidden Barbie and hates the fact that they don’t have genitals.)
Some of these ’70s novels (by Erica Jong, Marge Piercy, Alix Kates Shulman, Mary Gordon, etc.) chronicle a history of women.
Norma Jean does not want a divorce. She wants work. And this is a novel about a woman who isn’t afraid to scream to get what she wants.
I absolutely love this book and have to say it’s going to the top of my “If I Were Oprah (and Thank God I’m Not)” list.
I haven’t been able to find much information about Ballantyne (1936-2007) online. She wrote two other books, the novel Imaginary Crimes and a collection of short stories, Life on Earth. She won an O. Henry Award for her story, “Perpetual Care.” She taught creative writing at Mills College from 1985 to 1997.
I look forward to reading her other books.