Other People’s Houses: When white women in fiction try too hard

Abbi Waxman’s Other People’s Houses is a novel built on the premise that you never really know what’s going on with your neighbors, even in a peaceful, affluent L.A. neighborhood. Despite the charming, precocious children and manicured lawns and high-end minivans, things are not always what they seem. People have affairs, drink too much, say things they regret, and deal with any number of insecurities and losses, and we are counted on as readers to be surprised and touched by their pain.

This is a common setup in fiction, particularly a brand of white-lady fiction that is often marketed as a good beach read. I should specify that “white-lady fiction” is a shorthand I’m using here to describe work that is not only (or entirely) white, but, generally speaking, upper-middle class and heteronormative. The best work in the genre is sassy and irreverent and deeply human, managing to poke holes in the glossy, custom-tailored facade of well-off housewives and powerful white-collar career women while simultaneously honoring and centering their strife.

Liane Moriarty’s fiction is a great example of this. Her novels tend to focus on white women in their forties, most of them married, most of them mothers. The characters that aren’t rich are at least doing okay, and while their struggles are often fancy struggles that get solved in deus ex machina fashion, that’s fine–these books certainly do not purport to be anything else. Moriarty’s novel Big Little Lies was adapted to the very popular series of the same name on HBO, and both the novel and the show are good representations of Moriarty’s work, with complex characters and rich, meaty domestic  drama that unfolds through the perspectives of multiple women.

So, enter Abbi Waxman’s Other People’s Houses, out April 3. I bought her book with high expectations for a fun, easy send-up of white suburban conflict. It turned out to be a disappointing read–the writing is a little sloppy; some of the plots are poorly drawn out; the novel comes to a close with several loose ends never being tied up. But what really tripped me up was the representation of Iris and Sara, a married lesbian couple. At first, I was pleasantly surprised to see them included in the novel, which focuses in on four total families, all of them white, all of them well-off. But take a look at the first time we hear about the Iris and Sara, through the introduction of their son, Wyatt:

“Wyatt reveled in the riches of two mothers–his other one was an actress famous for being America’s Honey. It wasn’t a secret she was gay, it was just that America apparently didn’t give a shit.”

Some pages later, we learn more about Wyatt’s mom:

“She rarely gave interviews, and only went on TV to support charities or raise awareness of some atrocity somewhere. People knew she was gay, it had never been a big secret, but they were able to overlook it or something. Maybe the world accorded her the privacy and respect it wanted for itself; there was always hope.”

Notice how one paragraph is essentially a rephrasing of the other: APPARENTLY, no one cares that two women are married to each other. Somehow, people OVERLOOK it. (How generous of them.) There are other, less egregious examples later on, but these two, coming so early in the story, tempted me to gently set the book down and never open it again.

Iris and Sara have one of the less developed plots in the novel, so my impression is that Waxman wasn’t so much interested in their story as perhaps a bit uncomfortable with her otherwise white-bread narrative, and decided to make one of the couples gay just to mix things up a bit. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. But she seems to be doing the literary equivalent of standing outside a modest one-family home and yelling into a bullhorn that this family is fine and normal, absolutely nothing to see here. At one point, a straight character literally asks Iris, “Don’t lesbians cheat on each other?” to which Iris breezily answers that of course they do, because lesbians have fights and are imperfect people, “just like anyone else.” That phrase, in which a queer woman casually others herself and her partner, provides an incredible view into Waxman’s thinking.

Privileged women writers toe a fine line in modern fiction. The ones who have become aware of their privilege, however it manifests for them, often seem overeager to prove it to their readers, and they rarely do so with elegance. A common shortcut, in Other People’s Houses and similar work, involves an exhausted housewife looking around at her cluttered home and sternly reminding herself that, no matter what chaos has happened in her life that day, “other women” have it worse. Well, sure they do. But that’s not what the book is about. Those “other women” will not show up in the story, except perhaps as inconsequential bit characters. They exist only in comparison to the protagonist, or to let the author feel that she’s done her part to diversify her work.

In the case of Other People’s Houses, I doubt there will be a lot of complaining about the lack of diversity, because no one who is reading the book is expecting it. A quick scan of the summary in the jacket will let you know precisely what you’re in for. That’s just to say that it might have been better if Waxman had stuck to all-straight couples in her novel if she wasn’t going to try harder to represent a queer couple with some basic respect. (For what it’s worth, I include her editors in this criticism as well–did no one tell her?)

Of course it’s crucial for contemporary media to be more inclusive, but what that actually means is hiring and supporting and giving book deals to artists of color, and queer artists, and disabled artists, and so on. It is not for WASP-y writers to half-heartedly (or outright offensively) include token characters in their fiction and then decide they’ve done their job. I don’t know what Waxman’s writing and editorial process looked like for Other People’s Houses, or what her experience with the queer community has been. I do think that she could have done a lot better.

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