We have our second 20th Century Book Club meeting at the diner that my husband Tommy and I own. I’d offered to host, thinking I could treat the ladies to some fattening food and cheap wine, because who doesn’t like fattening food and cheap wine? Nobody in our little book club claimed to be above greasy carbs and merlot, so we settled on meeting at the diner at 7:00.
Tommy and I usually close the diner for business at 8:00, but tonight we closed at 6:00, to get ready. Now Tommy is back in the kitchen after bringing out a big platter of French fries, artichoke dip, and fried cheese sticks. We don’t normally serve our customers alcohol (since we don’t have a liquor license), but since we’re not charging and it’s a “private party”, Tommy and I broke out the box of Barefoot Red. But I told him that once we were all set up, he needed to go home. It was a girl’s night, and Tommy shouldn’t be around. “You’re welcome,” he’d responded sarcastically. I kept my sigh inside and let it go. Now Tommy is just cleaning up back there, and what sane wife could argue with that?
And I’m not nervous at all, until it hits me: all these greasy carbs and boxed wine is totally unsophisticated, and runs completely contrary to Brave New World, where it’s all about sleek surfaces, utility, and emotional detachment. Everything at our diner is always covered in a thin layer of grease no matter how hard we scrub it every day; the 1950s style Formica booths are charming but run-down; and the entire setting of the diner just screams of sloppy emotionalism. It’s the sort of place where you’ll laugh with your friends, or cry into a plate of pancakes while regretting all the decisions you’d made after partying the night before.
Hazel picks up a fried cheese stick, dipping it into the marinara sauce before shoving the cheese into her mouth. “Yum,” she says. “It’s so good. There’s no better invention than cheese.”
“I know, right?” says Leah, looking at Hazel and smiling in agreement. Then she turns to me. “Jessie, thanks so much for all of this,” Leah says. “I feel like a VIP, having this place all to ourselves.”
I shrug. “It’s nothing. I’m glad you like it though.”
They all nod, smile, and eat, though some eat more delicately than others. Annette chews her French fries slowly, one by one, and drinks tiny sips of her wine. Febe digs into the artichoke dip, scooping large amounts up with her spoon and scraping it onto the tiny slices of garlic toast that accompany the dip. She’s only just turned eighteen, so she drinks Mountain Dew instead of wine, and I wonder how she can handle that much caffeine past 5PM. I guess kids are resilient. And Kayla takes one fried cheese stick and breaks it off into little pieces before elegantly putting them between her lips. Kayla looks so fit though; I wonder if it’s been decades since she’s eaten fried cheese. Or maybe this is her first time?
“It’s just occurring to me now, that I should have done something to fit with the theme of the book.”
“Like what?” Hazel asks me. “Hold an orgy?”
“Or you could have served us some Soma!” Annette exclaims. “I was a young woman in the 1960s, back when everyone tried to get prescriptions for valium. That’s what Soma reminds me of. A drug that always makes you happy? Sign me up!”
Febe’s mouth drops open in shock, probably because she assumes little old ladies are supposed to be proper and straightlaced. The rest of us laugh.
“Totally!” Leah, with her patchouli scent, her dangly bracelets, the tiny, barely noticeable stud in her nose, and her super chill, accepting attitude, seems like the type who might enjoy recreational drugs now and then. “I love that in the book, the government not only mandates Soma, but they supply it to the everyone for free!”
Kayla furrows her eyebrows. “Yeah but come on! Soma keeps people from feeling any real emotions, and all citizens are required to take it. Imposing on civil liberties is not cool.”
“I agree!” Febe turns to Kayla. “Their whole society was so messed up, and not just the mandated drugs. None of it was natural. Think about the death centers and how they’re all born. And it made me so mad that only men could be alphas and alpha plusses. Talk about sexism!”
Febe is referring to the system the government in Brave New World set up. There are no natural births; all babies are genetically engineered to be of different intelligence levels. The super-smart Alphas are the leaders of society. Women can only be as high as Beta-plus. But everyone is designed to be happy with their station in life. Thus, Epsilons aren’t bright enough to be unhappy with jobs pushing buttons every day.
“The book is from the 1930s,” says Annette. “Of course it’s sexist.”
“It’s racist too.” Kayla states. “Didn’t you all notice that the Epsilons are dark-skinned? Only white males could be in charge.”
“Yeah, Brave New World was obviously written by a snobby intellectual white dude. But wasn’t it supposed to be ahead of its time in lots of ways?” Hazel directs her question to me. I was the one to choose Brave New World, after all. But I must inhale and brace myself before I can form my answer. I don’t teach high school English, like Hazel, and I was never an honor student like Febe, or highly educated like Kayla. As for Annette and Leah, I don’t know their stories, but they seem well-read. Meanwhile, the last book I remember reading from cover to cover (other than The Secret History, which was last month’s book club pick) was Brave New World. That was around twenty-five years ago, my freshman year of college, shortly before my life went crazy and I had to drop out. Of course, I read it again, just this week, to get ready for book club. There was a lot about it that wasn’t how I’d remembered it, but I guess that’s how it goes, when you revisit stuff from your youth.
“I think some of the ideas were ahead of its time,” I respond, speaking slowly. “Like the test-tube babies and all the free love. This was written long before the pill was even invented.”
“Hard to imagine, isn’t it?” Annette asks. “And that philosophy – ‘everyone belongs to everyone.’ That’s right out of the 1970s.”
Kayla cocks her head. “So, I know the whole book was a statement against a hedonistic society like the one in Brave New World, but what do you all think of that idea, that ‘everyone belongs to everyone’?”
“I think it’s the same as saying that no one belongs to anyone.” Hazel answers. “And that can’t be right.”
“Don’t be so sure,” Annette states. “Maybe we belong to each other for bits of time, but nothing is permanent.”
Hazel’s mouth turns down. “But I thought… haven’t you been married for over thirty years?” she asks Annette.
“Not exactly,” Annette answers, drawing out her syllables. “If you combine my two marriages, it adds up to over thirty years. But I’m not sure that I've ever belonged to someone else. Maybe I just spent too much time trying to maintain my own identity, to totally give myself to someone else, or maybe I’m just too selfish.”
I look past the faces of these ladies at the table where we sit, to the kitchen, where Tommy’s profile is barely visible. He’s standing at the sink, cleaning up the dishes we used to prepare tonight’s food. How much of our conversation can he hear? With the water running, probably not that much. I guess it depends on how much he’s trying to hear.
“Yeah,” I add. “I get that.”
The women look at me in surprise. I suppose from their viewpoint, Tommy and I seem like the perfect couple. He’s still handsome, he has a warm laugh, and he’s prone to give me affectionate squeezes when we’re out in public, which is often, since we own this diner and we work together. What the world doesn’t know, what they can’t see, are the secrets I hold, and all the regrets have. Sometimes I wish my life were like Brave New World, where there were no emotional burdens, or guilt, or obligation.
I open my mouth to speak, taking the plunge, hoping I don’t sound like an idiot. “I just think that the whole book isn’t so much a warning about the future, as it is this huge comment on how messed up human nature is. We’re selfish and we’re always looking for ways to escape pain or boredom, even if it means hurting others. So, in this society, they took hurting others out the equation, to the point where’s there’s no such things as motherhood anymore, and isn’t a mother’s love the most powerful force in the world?”
I realize as I say this that Annette and I are the only mothers in the room. “I wish it was,” Annette answers. “But I’m afraid it’s not. Because if it were, there wouldn’t be war.”
I feel the corners of mouth turn down, but I force them back up, speaking with a smile in my voice. “Come on, Annette,” I joke, “you’re making me question all my life choices.”
I say it like I’m kidding, but I’m not, at least, not entirely. I banked everything on the idea that sacrificing your identity is worth it, if you get love in return.
But nobody responds, not even Annette, though my comment was directed at her. The collective mood of the group has turned somber, which is not what I wanted. Time to lighten things up. “But what about those feelies? They were pretty cool, huh? And wasn’t Bernard a jerk?”
“They were all jerks,” Hazel answers. “Even John, who is supposed to be the hero, wasn’t a good guy, especially after what he does to Leena.”
“Yeah, but what exactly did he do? It was pretty unclear.” Says Kayla.
“It was clear enough to me,” Hazel answers. “He was lashing out because this ‘brave new world’ is so sexualized and bereft of any genuine emotion, and he hated being attracted to Leena but he blamed Leena for that and he punished her for being desirable, which is why so many real-life women get abused. The book really was very misogynist.”
I bite my lip and look down. Hazel hated the book. They probably all did.
She must read my expression because Hazel leans across the table and pats my hand. “Jessie, I still enjoyed it. It was interesting, and I can’t believe I’d never read it before in any of my college lit classes. I’d read lots of other dystopian books, like 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and Handmaid’s Tale.”
“Ooh,” Febe breaks in, “we should read Handmaid’s Tale next. I’ve heard it’s great!”
“Yeah, it is,” Hazel says. “but it’s super dark. I guess most dystopian novels are. That’s the thing about Brave New World: I know it’s supposed to be a cautionary tale, but it’s so glossy and hedonistic. I could see a lot of people, given the choice, preferring the society in Brave New World to our own, where we have war and poverty and messiness.”
“And that’s why I like the book,” I respond. “I read 1984 in the same college class where I first read Brave New World. I had to drop out before we got to Handmaid’s Tale, but it was on the syllabus, and I’d read its description. Anyway,” I continue, inwardly smacking my forehead for admitting to being a college dropout, “I think books that make us question ourselves and our world are the best kind of books. Everybody knows they don’t want Big Brother and the terror in 1984, nor do they want an oppressive government like Gilead from Handmaid’s Tale. But ask people if they want to live in a world without guilt or pain, with unlimited drugs and sex, where everything and everyone is beautiful? Lots of people would, even if it meant that their life had no meaning.”
“I wouldn’t,” says Febe.
“Me neither,” says Annette.
So, there you go; the youngest and the oldest members our groups have their priorities straight. Leah, Hazel, and Kayla all chime in, agreeing that they wouldn’t want that life either, but it took them a moment too long and I’m not entirely sure I believe they wouldn’t go for the sexy, drug-fueled, painless existence.
But what I ought to be figuring out is, would I?
20th Century Book Club is about a fictional group of women, discussing real (fictional) books. Every month you'll see the story of their book club meeting, plus you'll have access to the book information and reader's guide if you'd like to do your 20th Century Book Club. Scroll all the way down to see the cast of characters and their profiles!