Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy

First published in 1976, Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy is considered a science fiction feminist classic. I’d never heard of it before Lou @ Lou Lou Reads* mentioned it, and we decided to do a buddy read. First, I tried the novel as an audiobook, the only format available at the library, before I realized this novel is not conducive to an audio format. Or perhaps it was the way the voice narrator sounded . . . aggressive? Not sure, but I felt despondent. Then, I bought the e-book and things got moving.

*please check out Lou’s wonderfully written review.

The story begins in a frightening way: Mexican-American Connie Ramos lives in New York City. She’s meeting with . . . someone, some strange visitor who isn’t always there. Then, intense banging on her door reveals Dolly, Connie’s niece, who has been beaten nearly to death by her pimp. Dolly asks why Connie didn’t answer the door faster, suggesting that the “visitor” kept Connie’s attention out of the present. And the visitor is no where in site. As Connie wipes the blood from her niece’s wounds, the pimp arrives, shouting he will break the door in. Connie opens it, and violence ensues. Eventually, Connie smashes his face in with a wine bottle, but he survives. Because Connie has a history with police and a stay in psych ward, the pimp is able to drop Connie off at a the mental institution and convince them she’s violent. She is reminded:

“Three years ago you were admitted to Bellevue on the joint recommendation of a social worker from the Bureau of Child Welfare, your caseworker from welfare, and your parole officer. You were then hospitalized at Rockover State for eight months.”

Just look at his face! Connie’s brother, at some point, signs off on all this, and thus she is stuck. The staff treat patients like they have no agency or feelings, most patients are black or brown, and a gay man is “treated” for his immoral desires. Things look bleak.

Then, the “visitor” returns again — Luciente — and explains that “person” is from the year 2137. Luciente can travel back to Connie because Connie is a catcher, someone who can receive transmissions, and Luciente is a “receptive,” someone who can send them. While Connie’s body stays in the institution, her mind travels with Luciente to 2137 where she learns how things have changed in Luciente’s home of Mattapoisett. Gender doesn’t exist; they use “per” for him/her and “person” for he/she. Most folks are fairly androgynous, and everyone is black- or brown-skinned. Luciente’s people live in a sort of utopia where they create babies in a facility and then apply for mothering, sharing duties among three adults. People discuss their issues, manage the environment seriously, and engage in meaningful physical relationships with many partners. When Luciente comes to the present, Connie shows her around:

“See, there’s a car,” Connie said. “The red one. It’s a Chevy Vega.”

“How come person inside has the windows all the way up when it’s so hot? Is person scared of something?” Dawn asked.

“He probably has the air-conditioning on—a machine that makes it cool,” Connie said, studying Dawn’s hair and ears.

“Only one person in that whole machine! So much energy spent! The sadness of it, the loneliness!” Luciente blew her nose.

However, as the book moves forward, readers learn the utopia isn’t world-wide. Another trip to the future accidentally lands Connie in the wrong place, showing the extreme classicism and environmental degradation, war-like tendencies and people kept like slaves, in other parts of the U.S.

After Lou @ Lou Lou Reads and I finished the novel, we did a video chat. One of the best parts about reading with Lou is she comes to the table with a wealth of medical practice and medical history. She noted that by the time Piercy published Woman on the Edge of Time, mental health medical practices were already changing. Was Piercy behind the times? I noted that in the acknowledgements Piercy thanked mental health patients, doctors, and facilities for all their stories, suggesting she did a great deal of research that took time.

Lou also noted that the reason Connie went to the institution the first time, years before the current setting, was because she broke her four-year-old daughter’s arm. After her lover died, Connie fell into drugs and drinking, using her welfare assistance to self-medicate while her daughter starved and was neglected. Children, said Lou, do not break bones easily. Typically, she added, nurses see a break after a car accident, or a big fall while using a braced arm to stop the fall. On the one hand, readers sympathize with Connie’s situation; she’s fled an abusive husband in Chicago, she’s poor and has to team up with a thief to get by, her dearest relative is a prostitute who returns to her abuser and defends him by throwing Connie under the bus. On the other hand, as Lou said, people experience grief all the time and don’t abuse children as they process. While Lou found Connie hard to care about, I (not knowing much about medicine) saw systems working against Connie.

Both of us agreed that Piercy wrote a convincing world in 2137. It was an immersive landscape with believable characters and a clearly laid-out culture. Connie argues with Luciente about the differences in their world; after Connie’s daughter was taken by child protective services and put into the foster care system, she clung to the idea that her daughter belongs to her. In Luciente’s culture, mothering is a shared task that one signs up for if they’re interested. But is 2137 real? Connie is, after all, in a mental hospital, so one must ask: is 2137 is a way to escape a mental hospital with questionable practices by time traveling with her mind, or is 2137 is only a fabrication of Connie’s mind and Luciente and her city aren’t real? In the end, Lou asked if I thought she was drawing conclusions from the book that the author didn’t intend, or if I thought everything Piercy wove together was meant to be. Several things suggest to me that Piercy is a masterful, convincing writer, which Lou said changed the way she read the novel. I’m so glad we read it together; we each added something to the other’s reading and altered our feelings about Woman on the Edge of Time.

Piercy’s science fiction classic was informative (she writes a convincing gender neutral society), emotional (I was mad, I cried, I felt angry), and completely immersive. Just a heads up: I do not recommend the audiobook. Also, both Lou and I admitted that Women on the Edge of Time felt like slower read. I definitely couldn’t do a low-key skim of the sentences like I might with a lighter read, but that doesn’t mean the novel was dense, either. Highly recommended, and thanks to Lou for sharing another reading adventure with me!

17 comments

  1. Great review! A really interesting book and I enjoyed reading it with you (and having my perspective challenged).

    It’s not exactly that it’s rare for children to break bones – my ward would be full every summer of children who have tumbled out of trees or landed badly on a trampoline – but that it’s hard to apply that much force to another person by accident. Especially with the type of fracture that Piercy describes.

    I definitely see the systems working against Connie and I think the book is more interesting because she is both sympathetically portrayed and simultaneously awful.

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    • Woman on the Edge of Time is like the movie Do the Right Thing. At the end of Do the Right Thing, I never know who was the good guy or the villain, and then I have to come to terms with the fact that everyone was a bad person in some way, a bad person who also wanted to be heard and respected.

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  2. I’ve been wanting to read this since Lou’s review, but realistically, the only way I can is by audiobook, so fingers crossed. It’s interesting that SF authors often look at alternative methods of parenting. Quite often in the 70s (in SF) children would be brought up communally or by specialists, indicating maybe that authors weren’t happy with 1950s style nuclear families

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    • I think nuclear families verge on dangerous. If a child only has two parents to whom he/she can turn, that’s a limitation in resources and safety, even if the parents are both acceptable. You want trustworthy adults all over the place if you want children to feel secure and comfortable sharing their concerns.

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  3. What struck me in Lou’s review and in yours too is this idea of utopia being a place where you don’t raise your own children. It seems to fit with that hippie commune idea of communal family life but it always strikes me as dangerous for children who need stability and to be able to form healthy attachments. I am really intrigued though by the idea that the reader doesn’t quite know whether the future Connie visits is real or a creation of her own mind.

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  4. This sounds like the perfect book for a buddy read, no doubt if I read this, and a friend of mine did (especially one who is familiar with the medical community!) we would both have vastly different reactions. What’s prompting these feminist classic reads for you lately? You seem to be discovering some fun ones 🙂

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    • This book was chosen by Lou, and if she has time to read together, I’m going to take it. The other book, the Austen, I wanted to read because I read A.M. Blair’s retelling of Sense and Sensibility, and I like to support her. She’s a fellow book blogger who writes about lit and law, and it’s all amazing.

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