ARTS + CULTURE
Book review- A Wiser Girl
18th March 2021
A Wiser Girl. The title of Moya Roddy’s new novel does not betray any of the twists and turns in the adventures of its heroine, Jo, but it does hint at something important: that these twists and turns also serve as trials and tribulations that presumably will leave her A Wiser Girl.
I went to Charlie Byrne’s bookstore over the holidays and picked up A Wiser Girl after seeing Moya’s name, as Moya is my friend’s mom. The first thing I noticed was the cover: a picture of a girl’s flaming red hair resplendent in the light and shadows on a clear day, as the girl seems to be looking out at the waves. The image also reveals nothing about the adventures that lie between its covers.
The book tells the story of Jo, an Irish woman in her early 20s, as she journeys to Italy during the 1970s in hopes of becoming a painter. She harbors ideations of herself as an aspiring bohemian. In Italy, she runs into all sorts of trouble, ranging from the sexual attention of her boss, the father of the family for whom she works as an au pair, to inadvertently finding herself connected to dangerous communist groups who drag her into their political activities under the façade of working for animal rights. Jo, simultaneously naïve and unaware of her naiveté, is a prime target for the trickery of duplicitous men.
As she finds herself out of a job after an inopportune display of intoxication at her boss’ dinner party, Jo lands another job working in a home for the elderly, which is operated by a woman with crude manners and even cruder fashion sense. Despite this, Jo manages to somehow make friends with a kind (and wealthy) English man, Rupert, whose family own a property in Italy. Unfortunately for him, her romantic interest waxes and wanes as her time in Italy progresses. However, soon romance sparks between her and Philip, a young American painter, who also receives attention from Rupert’s mother.
As the novel progresses, the themes of youth, vulnerability, and making life mistakes color the plot and give context to the situations in which Jo finds herself. Her decisions seem at times madcap and ad hoc, partially due to her lack of propriety and partially due to her inability to keep quiet when annoyed or upset.
“As the novel progresses, the themes of youth, vulnerability, and making life mistakes color the plot and give context to the situations in which Jo finds herself.”
A Wiser Girl depicts something that many women and girls today still face at every second of their lives, but many have not experienced: being controlled and having their wings broken by the men in their lives. In Jo’s case, the readers are aware that she leaves Ireland with a broken heart, in part to escape from her past with Eamon, someone who touched her profoundly. We are also aware her financial means are limited and that she comes from a working-class background, which has limited her educational options. Throughout the course of her experience in Italy, Jo constantly faces situations or decisions that illustrate how youthful and vulnerable she is, both as a foreigner and as a young woman in Italy in the 1970s.
The most poignant illustration of this, at least for me, is the scene in which Jo receives a letter from the Florence Art Academy inviting her back to model for the students. The previous semester, Rupert had found her a job there after she found herself out of the job at the home for the elderly. At the time of receiving the letter, she and Philip are ensconced in their own live-in relationship, and Philip flat-out forbids her from going back, without even giving her the chance to express her thoughts, and what is remarkable is that he feels comfortable doing so, without a doubt about whether it is his choice, or even his place to do so. Whether or not Philip made this choice out of jealousy over the fact that his girlfriend would be posing (her body visible) before other students, her artistic ambitions, or of her spending her time with other people on other things is unclear. But Philip makes the decision, and she goes along with it. As a result, she is left completely beholden to Philip, completely at his beck and call, and she is essentially completely reliant on him for her own physical, emotional, and financial well-being, a responsibility bestowed upon him that he does not deserve.
Philip uses Jo as a muse, but also as his emotional, social, and physical crutch and companion, at times as his unofficial housewife. He reminded me of what I imagine a narcissistic who sucks all the energy out of those around him would be like, of the way I imagine a sensitive, creative type in need of constant praise, stimulation, and attention, unable to internally bear what he perceived as her competition as a painter or as an independent partner.
Jo’s summer in Italy leads her into trouble, foibles, and adventures, and it proves to be a summer of self-discovery. In the end, hopefully she realizes who her real, true friends are and is on her way to realizing and manifesting her own self-worth and potential. May we please have a sequel?
Featured Photo from Conor Montague on Twitter