I have not heard of this book before and only started and finished it because it was a book of choice for the book club I am a part of. The plot of an unmarried woman in the 1960s getting pregnant and moving into a shabby house with various characters seemed interesting to me, as I do not really read the works from this period frequently. When I did a bit more research, I realized that ‘ The L-Shaped Room’ is a quite popular and well-loved book, even inspiring a very popular movie of the same name. While upon reflection and input from my book club, I can see the merit of this book as it does open the door to discussing important topics, I did not fully enjoy this book.
First of all, the style simply did not sit well with me. Maybe it was because it was the wrong time to read it, but it took me almost a week to get through a book that is about two hundred pages long. Try as I might, I simply cannot put my finger of why it is so. On one hand, it is almost too simplistic in its approach, telling a simple straightforward story about a woman down on her luck. But on the other hand, the sentences were quite long and winded, often times causing me to re read the same passage several times, especially when describing something. It is told in first person narration, from the perspective of Jane Graham, whose character I did not enjoy at all, which could have been the reason I did not enjoy it.
Speaking of characters, that was another aspect of the book I did not like. Jane is the most annoyingly naive and selfish character I have read in the long time. I understand that a lot of it can be attributed to her circumstances (such as growing up without a mother and the lack of understanding of reproductive health prevalent at the time) but this realization did not make her a more sympathetic character. In fact, I found her lack of agency in her own life and impulsive decisions difficult to understand and emphasize with. Time and time again, Jane would make the selfish choice and leave others behind and not knowing how to fix it. At the beginning of the novel, she is a typical white middle class person, who did not really come into contact with others not like her and by the end, she opens herself to new experiences and new people, which is definitely admirable, but still sprinkles an occasional snippet of homophobia and casual racism here and there. (I will discuss the prevalence of harmful stereotypes in the book a bit later in this review) There is some progress in Jane and there is some truth to her characters, but for me she failed as a protagonist in sense that I simply could not relate or understand her, try as I might.
Other characters are actually more interesting than her, and have depth. John, a black musician that lived next door to Jane, had a lot of potential to grow and be an interesting character. He is a victim of constant racism, even from his supposed friends, but he still kept his good heart and desire to help others. I still do not understand why his dialogue is written it is, as it did not feel like it was vernacular, but rather that John is of low IQ? His story line fully revolves around being there for Jane when her relationship with Toby falls apart or to help her out and has no story of his own. It is a real shame as I felt that out of all the characters, he really had the most potential to be a fully fleshed out person. Toby is similar in that sense, with the exception that he is a Jewish writer and Jane’s love interest. He is given some depth, as he frequently questioned his skill as a writer and merit of his work. His relationship with Jane is complicated, but I did not mind that as given their circumstances it is realistic. While there is some growth to Toby, I cannot shake of the feeling that he is used a minority prop to show that Jane has grown to the point she can be in a relationship with a Jewish man, rather than a person of its own. I wish I got to learn more about them and their lives as it surely would not be easy to navigate being Jewish/black and poor in a society where racism and antisemitism were running rampant.
My biggest gripe with this book is the sheer amount of racism, antisemitism and sexism in this book. ‘The L-Shaped Room’ is very much so a product of its time, when holding anti Jewish and anti black views was almost a given. While I can understand that English society was somewhat different sixty years ago, quotes such as “A surge of the powerful negro odour preceded him.” and “Better you than some club for Jewish juvenile delinquents. Take it and buy a pram, and if your conscience bothers you, paint ‘Down with Arabs’ on one side and ‘I like Kykes’ on the other.” would make me angry every time because of how casual and unchecked they were used throughout the book. Even though Jane became friends with John and entered the relationship with Toby, she still made this observation “I knew almost nothing about little boys except that their need of a father was imperative if they were not to grow into Oedipus-riddled weaklings or even outright homosexuals.”There could be an argument made that Reid Banks’s intention was to fight against prejudices, as she gave these characters humanity and I could see elements of that. After all, Jane accepted them in her life, and we cannot expect her to change all her preconceived notions overnight. While this is all true, the frequent throwaway line about minorities seemingly for no purpose other than to show that this was how society was simply done not work in conveying these message. What did you think about it? Did you agree that this was actually an anti-racism/antisemitism book or do you think it was not successful in that?
At the end, Jane got her happy ending, including arrival of a never before mentioned aunt with a manuscript worth publishing and a cottage house who conveniently passed away, leaving Jane with everything. To say that this is an unrealistic ending would be a major understatement. Quite frankly, it was incredibly disappointing. After reading about struggles of a single pregnant woman and her unlikely group of friends for two hundred pages, to believe that her fairy grandmother in form of an aunt will magically show up and solve her problems is simply insulting to the reader. Jane’s return to the titular L-shaped room that is occupied by another woman who was in a similar situation as Jane at the beginning was a message of hope for me. If Jane ended up alright, why wouldn’t this girl too?
At the end, I think you can tell I did not ‘ The L-Shaped Room’ at all, and I am glad I read it. I am also glad I got to discuss it with people who enjoyed it and saw more significance than I have. Although it is still not my cup of tea, after the discussion I can see the merit of the book in terms of opening up space for this kind of topics in the 1960s. I will not be reading further books in the Jane Graham series, but I am considering watching a movie, although I am aware that the plot is quite different. Did you read this book? What did you think?