Julie Myerson on the perfect oven: ‘Rethinking the criteria by which women are now judged’

The first half of Julie Myerson’s newest novel, Moo, a version of which was first published as a French New Novel five years ago, is a world of blazing sparklers and runaway bull dykes, sleek hearts flying from their lips, and sensual clouds. With the exception of Gillian, the woman who’s offed herself in the middle of the Jacobean court, Julie’s characters flit through time – although we don’t know quite when.

We can already tell that Moo has an erotic, steamy quality, like Love and Anarchy, a late 1960s short story collection whose comic fiction follows Judy, an unsuccessful young woman, through the various stages of sexual awakening. But where Love and Anarchy plunges into the insipid, Moo leaps forwards to become a prophecy about the self-sufficiency of the French woman. Even if it doesn’t make it past early medieval times, this pre-ordained book has a quality of widespread blessing – of affirmation.

As Julie’s main character, Monetie, explains: “The first time I saw that language – I see it in a book, we need a book to translate it into – was in Molière’s Madame Mudd. It was, once again, there that the idea that people like me could not exist.”

And they don’t. Not in 17th-century culture.

Rather, Monetie sets out to have her own children, in a world where a woman, simply existing, will not help her husband to farm his crops – not even if he lets her cut their grass – or use her clothes to grow vegetables. All she must offer to her menfolk is the promise that she will produce a male heir.

This is, literally, a woman with no future – as the magnificent, utterly fascinating Moo’s title suggests. We have Monetie – an astounding-looking yet shockingly subtle character who shares an easy, funny, magnetic friendship with a fellow working-class belle called Lucile – poised in position, like one of those rabbits resting her head on the ground and twitching endlessly until a stone is delivered.

She can travel the world, courting her fantasies, or impressing her intimate circle of love-interests, without putting too much thought into the practicalities of being a mother. Not only that, but the world that she has to invent for herself – until it ends.

This begs the question: What does she have to do?

The answer is, well, nothing – until she has to. The author has made sure that this life is singular, as unique as Lucile’s confidence. Monetie has no children – no sister, no lover, no son. She is able to still, to move forward – but only insofar as Lucile draws her gently away, offering her stories, memories, and photos of what matters most to her.

As Moo expands, we become fascinated with the life of a playwright named Terence, whose dating habits – involving massages, baths, and sexy literature, despite her own struggles – are a world away from Monetie’s pinstriped and garden-hand elite. Suddenly, even Lucile and Monetie are indistinguishable – because Terence’s comfortable life has conformed to every detail of her own.

And this is what it means to live – to merge all manner of emotions into one’s life. Whether you’re a man, a woman, a pope, or any human being with eyes and a heart – everything we know we must make peace with, and rediscover.

The Parisian crowd of Lucile and Monetie’s age is almost entirely sexless. So, Julie Myerson has created something that transcends the boundary of two women going about their business, observing and discussing events that would have been unthinkable just a few hundred years ago.

Julie Myerson may not know what the future holds, but that she might have something to say to it now is her testament to what life is supposed to be.

Judith Samuelson is the author of Breadbasket of New England: Finding the Perfect Oven in New England. She is the founder of Words Not Bombs, a literacy program for children, and has written for The New York Times.

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