I can’t stop reading mystery novels. All I want to do is read murder mysteries, especially if they are set in England (Scotland is also good) and people have parlors and there are words I’ve never seen before but I can chalk them up to me not being British and still feel good about myself. I prefer my murder mysteries to sound vaguely old-fashioned, even if they were written in the 90s. I prefer the characters to believe firmly in the proper protocol, even if they have to break it.
But even if a book has to be set in America, and the detective has to be all swashbuckling and rebellious, I’ll still read it, as long as it’s a mystery.
Right now I’m reading a book by Elizabeth George (thank you, people on Twitter, for the recommendation! This post is dedicated to you!), and I am in love with her ugly woman detective. Her name is Barbara Havers. I am only on the second book of a long series, so I don’t know what will become of her and how her ugliness will factor into her fate, and I don’t know how the class difference between her and the dashing, high born detective she works with (in a supportive position) will play out. But I do know that I really like that she’s ugly. And I really like that she’s angry about being ugly. And I really like that she’s at the center of the books anyway.
I was writing about something similar recently. About the kind of woman I’d like to see more in books. I didn’t think that she might be angry.
But Barbara Havers is making me think about options.
It seems to basically go like this in books (in life, too?):
Beautiful women and girls can be anything. They can be scheming and vicious or brilliant and kind or just sweet or fascinating and full of surprises. They can be all types of beautiful, too. There are so many delightful variations, but we always know that they’re beautiful, because other people react to them in a way reserved for attractive women and girls.
Women and girls who are not beautiful can be interesting or not, but if they care too much about not being beautiful than they are vain and potentially dangerous or just desperate and a little tragic. If they don’t care at all, then there’s hope. Then they can be awesome in other ways. If they are awesome in other ways, other people will respect them, even if they don’t fall in love with them. If they care too much, then people won’t like them, and they will also make comments about how unattractive these women or girls are.
Barbara is ugly and pissed off. She knows how important it is to be pretty. She is aware of her clothes not fitting right, of her hair not falling right, of the unlucky proportions of her face and the awkwardness of her body. And why wouldn’t she be? She is a sharp, trained detective, after all. She is practical. She is a woman, in the world.
In life (in books, too?), people seem to be under the impression that you should not spend too much time thinking about how you look. Which is funny, because people seem to spend a lot of time thinking about how everyone else looks. In life, people like to say, “Just get over it!” With appearances, this means either you’re pretty or you should get over it.
I don’t like the implication that you can either be pretty or not even notice that you’re not pretty enough.
Just be confident and move ahead. Never mind that people feel comfortable saying things about how Lena Dunham is too fat for television and that Hillary Clinton has cankles. Never mind that the goal of women-geared industry seems to be to help you lose weight as quickly as possible so that you can finally have a shot at a decent life.
I am not ugly. I would never be cast on TV (unless maybe Lena Dunham really liked me) but I don’t think people look at me and think, “Well, I hope she has a great personality!”
But I am angry sometimes, and so I understand Barbara.
I am angry about not being obviously, indisputably beautiful, because I feel like my body has let me down. Because the world has made it clear to me how much it matters. Because I am afraid of being somehow held back because of it.
I am angry about how much it matters.
And I don’t think the way forward is to pretend it doesn’t matter. To pretend that it doesn’t matter to me. That I don’t even notice. That I’m too busy being confident and awesome and fabulously unique to notice the ways in which my face veers wildly away from the faces that smile seductively at me from magazines and get the most messages on OKCupid and attract the casual approval of so many strangers. I am not oblivious or stupid. Of course I notice.
It is difficult, at the same time, not to get annoyed at Barbara. She seems so petty sometimes. She’s so caught up in her own problems. The problems she imagines other people see in her. She is often wrong about what other people are thinking. She guesses for them freely. She is hurt. Her pain is coiled under her surface, always a moment away from striking. She lashes out.
It’s better not to care. It’s better not to notice. Or to notice and ignore. Or to notice and then turn away and work on this amazing slam poem. Or your mayoral campaign. Or anything else, really.
I think I’m going to get there. To the place where I notice and turn away. To the place where I notice and laugh it off. Where I shrug. I have those moments already, in my mid-twenties. I think they’re a good sign.
But even when it’s cool, I want to reserve the right to be pissed off about beauty.
And I am in love with the way that Elizabeth George writes this angry character who is a good detective, but who is also a woman who doesn’t match any of the beauty standards she can’t help but be aware of, and who can’t seem to fit in because of this, but who is plowing ahead anyway, fully conscious, bitter, completely human, and determined to grab onto the life she wants, anyway, and not let it go.
I don’t think I’m going to turn out bitter. I’m too lucky in too many ways. And I love my lips and my butt and a few of my slam poems.
But if women are ever angry about beauty, I get it. I get why we might be angry about all the rules our faces break just by expressing our parents’ quirky genes, and the standards we never stood a chance at meeting, and the celebrity bikini photo shoots that are constantly being praised in the background of our lives, and the 100 hottest women lists, and the dating site data, and the people who said something really mean to us growing up, and the times we just knew, we just really knew that we weren’t good enough because all of this—
We should be pissed.
I have a lot more going on under this face than on it, after all, and I wish I hadn’t had to learn somewhere along the line that the thing that I should wish most to be best at was something I had so little to do with. Something controlled more by an ancient string of ancestors and a random chain of events than by anything I might ever do. I wish it’d never occurred to me that I might not be worth as much as other girls, because of my topography—my surface. I wish I’d never recognized that critical, measuring look in the world’s narrowed eye, as it sized me up. But I recognized it.
And so I get it. And I can’t just let it go and pretend it didn’t happen.
We should be angry sometimes.
And then, since it is possible, to be angry and effective at the same time, we should go ahead and do some serious sleuthing.
* * *
Does anyone have any great mysteries to recommend?
Unroast: Today I love the way I love light.
Reader cake pic, from Bethany! Send yours soon!
She says: I actually AM eating cake in the picture of just me, even though it looks like I’m just savoring a fork. I had my kind of boyfriend take that picture specifically for your site, but he missed the cake sitting on the plate in front of me. It was a yummy ice cream cake and I say it counts! (Also, notice the sexy blur in the background? My best friend!)
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