Aspects of Her Nature

  • Rhoda Rabinowitz Green
    Aspects of Nature. Inanna Publications and Education (purchase at

Aspects of Nature is a collection of short stories—a pastiche of fictionalized memoir, third-person consciousness punctuated by metafictional moments, and epistolary tirades—written over the course of more than two decades, the earliest published in 1993. Broadly, the stories are an exploration of a shifting, but consistently reductionist, view of women and perceptions of the inverse relationship between aging and widely embraced cultural codes of femininity.

Green brings much energy to three stories that focus on women who refuse to see themselves as inconsequential unless they keep their aspirations and sense of self-worth in check. In “You Make Your Decision,” the protagonist, Jenny, resorts to silence as her efforts to become a concert pianist are thwarted by a music school dean. After her failed entrance audition, he insinuates that her attempt to study was disingenuous since she had already chosen matrimony over music: “‘Come now my dear,’” he condescends. “‘You made your decision the moment you said I DO.’” In later years, Jenny’s frustration is expressed as a cascade of tears when she “agrees” to abandon her reclaimed career aspirations and relocate to a new city as her husband’s ascending career dictates. Yet, in a turn that is representative of Green’s narrative structure, it becomes clear that Jenny’s sacrifices are about much more than music.

In “Dear Doctor” and its companion story, “Age Appropriate,” the heroine, Rose Enfeld, writes to her physicians to ply them with her grievances, expressing not only the physical shame of aging, but also the emotional degradation of simultaneously becoming anonymous and, worse, burdensome. These first-person harangues recall the chatty exuberance of Grace Paley’s recurring heroines, Hope and Faith, who likewise illuminate their listeners with recriminating observations on women’s lives. In particular, “Age Appropriate,” a letter to a shamelessly sexist plastic surgeon, captures the speaker’s rage at the suggestion that her happiness hinges on procedures to lift every part of her body “that has sagged, dropped, drooped, gone slack.” Intrepid, Rose berates the doctor for reducing her to a societal pariah for accepting aging’s physical repercussions while he, ironically, remains self-satisfied despite his “creping skin, baldpate, doughnut middle.”

The indignity of old age is captured in another pair of connected stories, “Shayndeleh” and “Shayndeleh’s Real Estate,” which focus on Jeanne, a working-class Jewish woman who feels she has been caged by her children and niece in a seniors’ home. Betrayed by her mind, she is angry and frustrated but cannot link her feelings to past experiences or relationships. Yet her reactions to her niece’s condescension—the niece insists that old age has left Jeanne unchanged—is a biting indictment of the patronage of the old. “What does she know?” Jeanne thinks when her niece tries to convince her that she is still her young self. Jeanne’s terse remark is both question and answer; for the young to assume to understand aging is to confess wholesale ignorance of the innumerable perplexities of getting old.

Incidental in these stories are the occasional Canadian references and Jewish allusions. Set in nondescript versions of London, Philadelphia, Toronto, northern Ontario, southern California and elsewhere, these stories lack a sense of place, an anchoring rootedness to substantiate their context and their characters’ worlds. Equally, the Jewish elements seem appended to the stories’ discursive trajectory, especially in “Out to Lunch with the Girls” as well as “Shayndeleh,” where Jeanne’s attenuated Jewish identity and her niece Tzippy’s ultra-Orthodoxy seem contrived. More problematic are the Holocaust inferences. While Green does tread carefully, avoiding the exploitative tendencies delineated in Lawrence Langer’s Using and Abusing the Holocaust, overall the “survivor” allusions are used to troubling effect. In “The Wind at Her Back” and “The Day of the Gorgon,” most notably, references to Bergen-Belsen and “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” suggest an inappropriate effort to elevate stories of poignant but recognizable relationships into morality tales with historical gravitas.

Green tries to cover much ground in most of her stories. The narrative threads and passages that are most moving, however, are those characterized by an exploration of depth rather than scope. When she is on surest ground, examining gendered double standards and the tension between age and the potency of femininity, the impact of her prose is most resounding.

This review “Aspects of Her Nature” originally appeared in Literary History. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 233 (Summer 2017): 144-145.

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