Is your life a tragedy

In 2012 Meg Wolitzer published in the New York Times a widely acclaimed essay on "the second shelf". On that "second shelf", books by women authors who are short and slim, who are not in the breadth like a David Foster Wallace, but also not too thin and lean, like a Julian Barnes or are sorted out with a fine smile, would be sorted Ian McEwan can allow. To avoid misunderstandings, wrap women's literature in pink bindings with wedding ring motifs and feminine illustrations.

The problem that Wolitzer is complaining about extends beyond bookstore marketing, of course. The "second shelf" in her text stands for the structural stigmatization of female writing, which she herself also feels. On Amazon it is classified as "women's literature", and at parties men would bring their wives in to talk about Wolitzer's literary topics ("sometimes marriage", "family", "sex", "longing", "parents", "children") with the words, "Look honey, you might like this".

Wolitzer's novel "Das ist dein Leben" has now been published in German, the original of which she published in 1989, long before the much-discussed essay. It is the second of 13 novels by the American bestselling author. With a quick glance at the blurb, this book would also be the ideal candidate to be ridiculed as "chick-lit", as low-threshold women's literature.

The famous mother hovers over the daughters like a zeppelin

The story of a single mother and her two daughters struggling with weight problems, fear of attachment and toxic relationships, walks with open arms towards that second shelf, ready to be decorated with bows and cream. The novel tells in detail about the inner workings of three women and the darned family paste with which the two daughters Erica and Opal and their mother Dottie are carded and which condemns them to somehow get through life together.

This life is determined first of all by the famous, massive mother. Dottie Engels is a comedy celebrity in her seventies who jokes about being overweight and selfishly distilled her repertoire from her pounds. She appears on major television shows and her name appears on billboards in Las Vegas. For her daughters, she is a zeppelin that always hovers over them and the rest of the world, even if she spends most of the time on the other side of America while various babysitters take care of the two teenagers.

The grumpy Erica is the stereotype of a teenage girl who nobody likes and who doesn't like anyone. Her sister Opal is the younger, pretty, popular Antipodin and her mother is the cliché of a busy, successful celebrity who sometimes cracks jokes at the expense of her children.

In the second part, the characters unfold their tragic potential

The subtle comedy of this novel is already evident on the first two pages: The two sisters share the hobby of hyperventilating together until the older one suddenly has more important things to do than panting in a faint. She sets up her room esoterically and by mistake supports a company with a purchase of incense sticks that has committed itself to the "fight against the rise of world Jewry", which only scares her briefly, the incense sticks burn anyway.

While the abysses of the characters are only quietly announced in the first part, they break up in the second part, now the characters are exposing their tragic potential. The three women fail slowly and quietly, without sensation. A crack, not a break.

Erica can no longer hear her mother's jokes and has a loveless but sex-rich relationship with a classmate. The younger daughter Opal is so attached to the television screen and her mother's lips that at some point she can no longer concentrate on studying at Yale. Nevertheless, Wolitzer does not exploit this as a tragedy, but allows understanding roommates and deans of studies to appear.

Family is tragic because it is inevitable

And although Erica later moves into a cockroach hole with that loveless high school friend, he becomes a drug dealer and not a better person because of it, she remains a self-determined figure who foreseeably packs her things and leaves at some point. At no point in the book is Erica lost forever, Opal's place at Yale also remains, and with him a perspective.

Wolitzer's renunciation of dramatic plot turns appears self-confident in this novel. Nobody here drives their lives against the wall at full throttle, it tends to scratch the side plank for a very long time and still hurt. The quiet tragedy works.

When Erica and her sister Opal are talking on a walkie-talkie, Opal prefers to say goodbye to Erica with "Over and Over" instead of "Over and Out". That means that the conversations with her sister are never really over. It's this longing for all three characters to bond that makes the book a close observation of this darned family bond.

Last but not least, it makes clear how little the topics "longing" and "family", with which Wolitzer's novels were fond of dealing, are specifically female topics. She doesn't need a feminist hint to free herself from banality and chick-lit accusations. It is enough to look at the tragic potential of the family.

Meg Wolitzer: This is your life. Translated from the English by Michaela Grabinger. Dumont, Cologne, 2020, 384 pages, 24 euros.