In our continuing series on the first adult books we read as teens, one of our newest reviewers, Meghan Cirrito, talks Chopin’s The Awakening, a book that I had trouble reading as a college sophomore. Go Meghan!
It is difficult to remember when I stopped reading books for kids my age and when I started reading adult books. My parents were generous in that they took me to the public library as often as I wanted to go and they never censored what I read. Their trust was very empowering for a kid who was shy and uncertain in social situations, and really, really bad at math. I excelled at reading and their trust in my ability to find my own books gave me confidence in the thing that also gave me the most pleasure: reading.
That’s probably why as a 7th grader I relished the challenge of reading The Awakening by Kate Chopin. It was my elder sister’s Summer Reading assignment that she had steadfastly ignore for almost 2 months. I couldn’t best her in many things, but I could read. From St. Louis myself, I was intrigued when I read the author’s bio in the back of the book and saw she was from St. Louis too. I remember also being drawn-in by the gauzy woman on the cover – I think she was standing in the sea. Chopin’s hot and hazy Grand Isle vacation was as unfamiliar to me as the clothes they wore and the French phrases they threw around, but I quickly became engrossed in Mrs. Pontellier’s life. At the time, the examination of marriage and feminism passed me right by. I was struck by what a jerk her husband was and how confused she seemed. It also did not seem to me that Robert had much to recommend him in the boyfriend department. But the ending. The ending was worth the sometimes boring descriptions of sumptuous furniture and confusing observations about Edna’s skills as a mother. To kill herself in that manner seemed to me, at around age 12, extraordinarily beautiful and dramatic.
I remember putting the book down and wishing I had someone to discuss it with. I wished I could ask questions about the time and place. I wished I had been assigned the book and not my sister because then I would have to talk about it in English class. There was so much I didn’t understand about how a woman like Mrs. Pontellier lived and loved, which made the ending intriguing and confusing too. I didn’t understand The Awakening as a work of literature and sometimes wondered if it even “counted”. But I do always count it because I think what we read, even if we don’t fully understand it, adds building blocks to our foundations both as readers and people. I was proud of finishing a book my sister had been putting off reading for months. I was excited to move on to the next book, even if it “wasn’t for me”. As I look back, I’m so glad I never put limits on myself as a reader, that I was and am willing to try anything. As a parent now myself, I hope I can give my child the same freedom to find books, get confused, have curiosity piqued, and find some books to answer questions or satisfy curiosity.