Duck Duck Book

32 – shared lives
04.24.2006, 5:34 pm
Filed under: history & geography

Shared lives / Lyndall Gordon. 
New York : Norton, 1992.
[MCL call number: B-Go656s; one copy, no holds]

Shared Lives is a memoir of friendship, specifically of the friendships between biographer Lyndall Gordon and three of her close friends from childhood, all of whom died before their middle age.  The genesis of this friendship is in the insular, middle class community of immigrant Jews in 1950s Cape Town, South Africa.

The story is presented chronologically, from the four girls' childhood through their adolescence and into their adulthood.  We are introduced to the girls and their families, friends, their school, and the tightly knit world of white Jewish immigrants where they live.  Social restrictions, schoolwork, leisure time, travel, celebrations, and the elements of community life that most affect young girls are described in detail.  Family relationships and the social dynamics of school life are paramount in this part of the story. 

As the girls grow older, their lives broaden.  They become involved in politics, they have romances, and they focus also on weightier family responsibilities, serious academic study, and the world of work.  Eventually each of them follows her own path into adulthood — for Gordon it is marriage, a move to the United States and eventually Great Britain, graduate school, motherhood, and an academic career of her own. 

I was almost done with the book when I realized that the structure with which Gordon forms her story has another level, beyond the frame of the journey of friendship over the years.  Shared Lives begins with the girls' childhood.  This world does not include any understanding of the realities of life for other South Africans (or indeed, for anyone else at all) because at a young age, the four girls did not themselves comprehend a life beyond the ones they lived.  As they grow up, they follow their own interests outside of the circumscribed middle class Jewish society of 1950s Cape Town.  New responsibilities and social expectations begin to require them to interact with a wider world. 

But the story of the changes from girlhood to adolescence to adulthood is accompanied by the story of the four friends' increasing understanding of their own culture, and of South African society and politics.  Each has a different view of these things, and of course different restrictions and opportunities are available to each woman.  Their similarities and differences create many opportunities for discussion of the choices they've made about how to interact with the racist society in which they were raised, their differing levels of compliance with social propriety and expectations for women of their cultural background, religion, and class, their willingness to break rules or not, and their compromises for the sake of work, love, and family.  Shared Lives is a beautiful, warm story, and its focus on the entire span of friendships between a group of women is interesting and heartening.  Although it is in some ways a very sad story, I found that reading Shared Lives left me feeling encouraged and rather hopeful.

Gordon's Vindication : A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft is also excellent, and was reviewed in Duck Duck Book number 31.


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