Review: A Curious Invitation

A Curious Invitation by Suzette Field


Last week, Liz Bourke tackled Sarah Silverwood’s Nowhere Chronicles, a YA urban fantasy trilogy that takes place in a world where the few women who actually exist are extensions of male characters, any character from a racial minority dies, and physical disability is linked to abusing magic. She is, understandably, unhappy. In the context of an SF community desperately trying to break the orbit of people who still don’t understand why we need to care about women or people of color or queer folk, it’s troubling stuff.

As Bourke says:

Prejudice can be loud or obvious, and it can be quiet, unmarked, part of the sea in which we swim. Silverwood’s Nowhere Chronicles uphold a biased view of the world, which is to say: they’re bloody sexist.

Because it is no longer socially acceptable (in most circles) to explicitly say “I hate women!” or “Black people aren’t people!” in public, it’s sometimes tempting to think that our anti-oppressive work is done. But that only tackles the first kind of prejudice Bourke identifies. The latter type of prejudice is both the most damaging and the most difficult to remove. I imagine, were you to ask Sarah Silverwood (who is, in fact, the YA fantasy nom de plume of horror writer Sarah Pinborough) point-blank if she hated women, she would disagree most vehemently with you. But, nonetheless, in writing the Nowhere Chronicles, she wrote a modern London peopled almost entirely by men as if it were completely natural (no reason is given, according to Bourke). This sort of insidious prejudice lives in all of us, even those working against this sort of thing. As Bourke’s metaphor points out, it’s practically in the water. The point isn’t, as I’ve mentioned before, not to mess up or not have those feelings. The point is to recognize them, analyze them, and move on from them.

So how does this relate to a fluffy British gift book about literary parties reprinted in the States last week? Because, in my experience, it’s the stuff you don’t take seriously (coffee table books, morning news programs, and reality television, for example) that’ll seep into your brain. When I read Cameron Silver’s Decades, a coffee table book about fashion, I was horrified by the thin and binary slice of womanhood it offered up. The same thing happened with A Curious Invitation.

For the most part, it’s a fun trifle—it’s essentially a list of forty parties selected from literature highlighting the major players, decor, events, and, of course, food. (I picked it up because of the food. I always do.) Author Suzette Field, an American ex-pat in London, is the tribune of the Last Tuesday Society, a group that organizes splendid and often book-inspired parties, and this is clearly meant to be a refresher on classic book parties and a way to inspire your own parties. It hasn’t been updated or Americanized at all from its original UK publication last year, which will appeal to Anglophiles.

But, like Decades before it, it’s flippant, exclusive, and even a little cruel. Much is made and celebrated about the British sense of humor, whose charms I (and my French Anglophile mother) are not immune to. But the flip side of that is that it can sometimes veer into cruelty, and I loathe humor derived from sneering at others. While American-born, Field’s sensibility (and use of slang) is undoubtedly of her adopted country. Jane Austen’s status as a spinster is seen as a failure, given the content of her novels, and Field alienates both particle physicists and literary critics by stating that, as a particle physicist named the quark after an invented word in Finnegans Wake, “Clearly the scientist recognized the similarities between particle physics and literary criticism of the Wake: both disciplines relying much on wild guesswork and random theorizing” (268). This is basically the text telling us that particle physicists and literary critics are not welcome at this table, but, luckily, I’m the stubborn sort.

The worst, however, comes with Field’s entry for Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, which features a protagonist struggling with suicidal thoughts who makes friends with a young woman who is also struggling with suicide. Each entry ends with Field discussing the legacy of each book, which is where I learned about The Great Gatsby going out of print. This entry ends with Field pointing out that ““Its depressing tone and bleak Weltanschauung were clearly autobiographical, but all the stuff about suicide was probably just romantic posturing in the hope of snapping up a few teenage readers: Hesse lived to the ripe old age of eighty-five” (254). She completely dismisses Hesse’s documented struggle with depression and suicide because he didn’t successfully kill himself for a joke.

The thing that gets me about this is that it is so easy to not do these things. It’s incredibly easy not to be so breezily cruel. The book doesn’t need this vein of unexamined cruelty to function. It does its job quite well without it. And yet, it’s there, spoiling the rest of it by explicitly spelling out who is in and who is out, and literary critics, physicists, spinsters, and those struggling with depression are right out.

Now imagine that lurking on your coffee table, ready to bite any reader of the above variety. Yeesh.

Bottom line: Why is it gift books that always end up perpetuating the more insidious kinds of prejudice? A Curious Invitation is a fun romp through literary parties, but its vein of unexamined cruelty spells out exactly who is in and who is out. So don’t expect an invitation if you’re a literary critic, a particle physicist, a spinster, or struggling with depression.

This book was made available to me for publicity purposes.

3 thoughts on “Review: A Curious Invitation

  1. Ugh, sounds unfortunate. I enjoy mean humor as much as the next person, but it’s important for the meanness to be targeting a group that asks for meanness. You know? Is that okay to say? Meanness to the powerful is much much much more okay?

    • I don’t have the quote at my fingertips, but I’ve read somewhere that satire is meant to be the weapon of the oppressed against the oppressor, like when The Daily Show just lets its interviewees rip. I think mean humor is much the same way. Mocking a powerful group does damage their reputation, but rarely does specific harm to them. None of the misandrist jokes on tumblr are actually and actively hurting men in institutional ways, for instance. Mocking an underprivileged or oppressed group is totally different, because you’re not only kicking someone while they’re down, you’re also reinforcing prejudiced notions that, for instance, suicidal people aren’t “serious”.

      Humor is powerful stuff! You gotta be careful with it.

  2. Pingback: Review: Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs | The Literary Omnivore

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