Sometimes literary wisdom gets delivered in an awkward vehicle. That’s the case with Wally Lamb’s sixth novel, “I’ll Take You There.” The substance of the book is an important retrospective on the progress of American women from a sexist culture to what is now called “post-feminism.”
Felix Funicello, a 60-something filmmaker, tells the story by looking back at his sisters, then his wife, and finally, his daughter. Using the regional Miss Rheingold beauty pageant, a real event sponsored by a beer company in New York, Lamb deftly details the objectification of women. He looks at the body-shaming that can afflict girls faced with nearly unattainable standards of female beauty. He probes the cultural norms that established the personal and sexual relationships between girls and women of the 1950s and 1960s and their male counterparts.
What is bothersome are not the conclusions, but the way “I’ll Take You There” takes you there. Lamb relies on visions of ghosts in an old movie theater and time travel that seem unnecessary and distracting. Suspension of disbelief is one thing. Here, the appearance of a female film director from the silent movie era to direct a documentary of Funicello’s life feels contrived. Lamb’s decision to make his main character a cousin of beach movie star Annette Funicello is another head-scratcher, especially because that plot line never gets explored.
The gimmicks are superfluous. Lamb did not need them to reminisce about growing up in the ’50s and ’60s. Baby boomers would have loved this book for its nostalgic references to TV shows and ad jingles no matter how they were introduced. People of any age can relate to a well-told story about a man whose dealings with women are as transformational as the women’s liberation movement itself. Felix’s sisters, Simone and Frances, react to stereotypes and evolve. His ex-wife, who fought to force society to focus on brains instead of their breasts, retains a passion and anger that seems to escape his daughter, Aliza, a writer for New York magazine. But Aliza and her generation have found their own ways to hold misogynists accountable through social media and alienation.
There is an eerie coincidence with “I’ll Take You There” that works better than some of Lamb’s fictive techniques. Instead of sending its first female chief executive to the White House, this country has entrusted power to a man whose presumptions about women as sex objects would fit nicely into one of Lamb’s 50-year-old flashbacks. It will be interesting to see how well life imitates art.
Jim Spencer is a Washington, D.C., correspondent for the Star Tribune.
I'll Take You There
By: Wally Lamb.
Publisher: Harper, 253 pages, $25.99.