This is a novel about one woman's journey from childhood to old age, but it's also about the way women's lives and expectations have changed between the mid-twentieth century and today - the story ends in 2011, with its protagonist aged 88. It's also about birds!
Meridian Wallace was born in the 1920s, and lucky to have a father who appreciated her young enquiring mind, giving her The Burgess Bird Book for Children when she was ten and The Origin of Species when she was eleven. After his sudden death, she and her mother struggle, but she pours herself into academic work and gets accepted at the age of 17 to a BA in ornithology at the University of Chicago. She loves every minute, and can see a bright academic future ahead of her, with an MA and a PhD on the horizon. Then she encounters Alden Whetstone, one of her lecturers, twenty years her senior, and he quickly becomes the centre of her life.
I was in awe of Alden. I could only sense the very fringes of concepts that his intellect grasped with such easy, ready fingers. I worshipped his knowledge, his aloof independence and greater world experience. He was my teacher; he led me, and I followed gladly.
Although Alden is drawn to Meri's intelligence, he is very much a man of his time. After they marry, she manages to finish her degree, but defers her PhD, initially for a year, so that she can join him where he has been posted - Los Alamos, where he is working on a top-secret project which we realise, and Meri eventually discovers, is the development of the atomic bomb. She also discovers that her academic ambitions have to be permanently shelved. Alden takes no interest in her desire to continue working, and even the other wives in the community, many of whom have PhDs of their own, believe that after marriage a woman's place is in the home. So Meri has to make do with her own private observations of a community of crows, recording their lives over decades in her Crow journal. By the time she is in her 40s, she's more or less had to accept that her marriage is essentially dead - no physical contact, and very little communication of any kind. But then, on one of her outdoor observation days, she meets a young man twenty years her junior and her life is totally transformed. What will she do? Will she do what Clay wants and leave her unhappy marriage or will she stick it out, complicit with her own capture, like the caged hares she has read about:
eventually the hare would not attempt to escape but instead would only move inches outside of the opening, briefly smelling freedom but finally choosing to turn its back and return to the hutch... having taken the cage into himself.
I was pleased to get a review copy of this, and found it quite absorbing. It's not exactly ground-breaking, as there can't be many people who are not aware of the sort of gender politics that are being aired here, but the writing is literate and readable and the it's impossible not to warm to, and empathise with Meri who luckily, when we meet her at the age of 88, has managed to have a happy, successful and independent life after Alden's death. There's also some interesting stuff about birds, and crows in particular, which works to quietly highlight the events and changes in human life.