FemlandiaFemlandia by Christina Dalcher
My rating: 3/5 cats
One StarOne StarOne Star

this book was…not for me.

i’ve already written far too many words in my little reviewing journal trying to figure out why i didn’t love it, and now i’ve missed pub date, so you tell me.

review still coming, but—need more time.

okay, here we go:

i wasn’t crazy about this one, and i’ve been trying to figure out why for about a month now.

quickplot: an economic collapse causes chaos across the USA, and the ensuing violence, looting, and food insecurity forces miranda—a pregnant, newly-widowed, formerly wealthy mother of a sixteen-year-old girl to seek shelter in the nearest femlandia—one of a number of self-sufficient female-only compounds her famous-feminist mother win somers established across the country. (“Self-sufficiency…Or I guess we could call it ‘self-sufficienSHE.'” GROAN)

before her mother’s death, miranda had been estranged from her for many years, #notafan of the great win somers’ beliefs, methods, or showboating public persona. miranda married young and lived very comfortably for twenty years, until circumstances (i.e. world goes boom) led her to beg for entry from femlandia co-founder jennifer jones—the woman who slipped into the daughter-shaped void miranda left in her mother’s life.

behind the walls of femlandia, womyn are free from the scrutiny of the male gaze, from abusive husbands, from the aggressions and microaggressions of men:

It isn’t only the loose kaftans and colorful fabrics that mark them as different from the women I’m accustomed to; it isn’t anything they have or wear at all, but rather what they don’t have. An absence. I don’t think I ever realized until now how uptight we city women are—or were—how we constantly, incessantly protect ourselves by keeping our heads bent down at our phones or by examining an imagined hangnail, our subconsciouses expecting danger lurking around every corner. We make ourselves look older and uglier than we are, as if youth and beauty were attributes to be hidden away from the world. These women don’t have any of these tics, because what these women don’t have is fear. And being fearless, they must possess a sense of freedom most of us have never known.

cut off from the rest of the world, they have been thriving on their own for years, so this little societal collapse is just another day in the life for them.

however, femlandia is not so much a feminist utopia as it is a misandrist cult, and miranda starts uncovering some of the grubby little secrets at the heart of her mother’s creation (like how these women are still getting pregnant, and having babies and how all of these babies are female), while her daughter emma embraces the community’s highly problematic philosophy with full teenage fervor.

but, like a teenager’s devotion, this book is all surface with very little depth or substance.

it’s a little loose at its joints—it feels like dalcher wanted to write about A and B and C, and she focused on writing the loud shocking parts without spending any time developing the quiet connective tissue that would make this whole situation feel…considered.

the trans issue is a pretty good example. the femlandia leadership has a very staunch policy when it comes to transfolk—if you have, or have ever had, a penis attached to your body, you are unwelcome:

“They can identify as a fucking hedgehog for all I care. I’m talking about what they are. Not what they think they are or what they want to be. It’s a slippery slope. You let one in, you have to let in all. There is a reason your mother called this place Femlandia. Get used to it.”

part of the femlandia vetting process involves a physical examination, with an explanation:

“I need to satisfy myself that you were always a woman.”

which, hey—your compound, your rules, but since there is no mention of trans men or nonbinary/genderqueer people anywhere in the book, it feels like dalcher just didn’t want to have to bother with the complexities of gender identity, and dispensed with the matter, shutting it down in one short paragraph.

and that gruff dismissal of an entire segment of the population is indicative of how this book deals with any kind of nuance—it doesn’t. it ignores the complex and favors the reductive—a colorblocked philosophy without any shading.

my problems with this book aren’t ideological—i don’t read books to see my beliefs mirrored, nor do i read books to have my beliefs challenged. i’m willing to roll along wherever the author chooses to have their characters take me, but at the end of it all, i want there to have been a purpose for the journey—not necessarily a lesson or a stance, but give me something to digest at the end of it; even something as writing 101 as setting or character growth or conflict resolution.

my issues with this book are storytelling issues.

as far as the community is concerned, we get very few details about the logistics or political structure or How It All Works. we see some of the punishments for disobedience—in fact, miranda’s month-long solitary confinement means we don’t get a lot of first-impression insights or any perspective about how this colony functions—she immediately (on day five, after being in a medically-induced coma for three days) becomes peripheral to the action; locked in a room reading books while emma is being turned against her and radicalized—with no clarity about how her daughter came to be so quickly indoctrinated into this “all men are terrible” weltanschauung.

miranda is a wildly inconsistent character and very slow on the uptake. come on, miranda, you work in a zoo and you don’t know what coyotes sound like? (and the reveal of that particular plot point was obvious from the first mention, but it was dragged out so long, like dalcher thought we were brand-new and wouldn’t immediately clock what was going on there.)

it’s such a contrast to Matrix, which squeezes the theme of a female-centric cooperative of every last narrative drop. and obviously that’s a different situation, a different mission statement, a different writer, but it’s a very good example of a story written by someone who is willing to Do the Work—to think beyond the barebones “i have an idea!” stage and actually flesh it out with meat for a reader to chew on. Matrix took the idea of a gated community of women and showed all the angles—the good, the bad, all of the unconsidered subtleties.

by comparison, this is so shallow and brief. i’m not sure what point she was trying to make. ladies can be shitty, too? what’s the story? why is this book?

i liked the beginning of this very much—the tipping-point momentum of society breaking down, the shortages, the danger, the situational morality, miranda’s friends, having resented her cushy life, turning their backs on her, along with every religious or social institution she approaches for help.

You want to know how people end up homeless, how anyone could turn away or shut a door or hang up a phone? Just start asking for help.

but it doesn’t give anything to the reader, other than a hollow misanthropic clang. men are shitty. women are shitty. people are shitty. we know. we’ve been here.

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