Rather than a memoir, I would say this is a collection of notes about the time Plante spent with three difficult women; Jean Rhys, Sonia Orwell and Germaine Greer. I picked it up because of Jean Rhys. I find her writing unique and have been suspicious that it was very much based on her own life experiences. I knew she was an alcoholic and had lost a child due to neglect but I wanted to learn more about her. It appears in her later life she was self centred and unpleasant but at the same time fragile and reliant on others. Sonia Orwell (George’s wife for only 14 weeks before he died) is also hard work and I am pretty sure that Germaine Greer would not be at the top of my list for a dinner party invite. In fact, all of these women are portrayed as being particularly tiring to spend any time with. They demand attention, have emotional swings and whether consciously or not, dictate the mood of any conversation or party.
This is not a complementary memoir, in fact when the book was first published in 1983, Plante made himself very unpopular in literary circles with other writers and friends of the women in question. He talks frankly about this in an article in The Paris Review, written in September 2017. He doesn’t apologise as he feels he was merely describing their relationships as they were. I find his writing a little arrogant and as self centred as his subjects.
Even so, I did enjoy this book and raced through it in 24 hours but I can’t help feeling that in some way it is a breach of confidence. Plante is telling stories about his friends and I agree with Parul Sehgal in his review in The New York Times when he says,
“Difficult Women” is creepy, it is cruel, it is morally indefensible – and it is exhilarating.Seghal, Parul, ‘With a Friend Like Him, They Didn’t Need Enemies’, The New York Times (September 2017).
Was Plante truly their friend or did he commit ‘literary treachery’ as Sehgal suggests? However you feel about this does not take away from the fact that he brings these women to life. If you are at all interested in Rhys, Orwell or Greer, give it a go. They are perfect little character studies and a fascinating read.