Portrait, Not Polemic: Laura & Emma by Kate Greathead

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Within the first ten pages of Kate Greathead’s Laura & Emma (Simon & Schuster, March 2018)  is a line that tells you almost everything you need to know about the book’s protagonist: “The word wealthy embarrassed Laura. It was not a word she or anyone she was close to used, and she wished her analyst hadn’t spoken it.” From this we learn: that she’s ensconced in a milieu of rich people. That she hasn’t quite excavated the discomfort she feels about her own privilege, preferring to ignore it in keeping with the unspoken rules of her social circle. And that, from all of the above, she’s probably a New Yorker—the wealthy ones, in stories, are always seeing shrinks out of a vague sense of obligation.

Emma enters Laura’s life unexpectedly. In 1981, Laura spends the summer at her parents’ house on East 65th Street, where she meets a man who tells her he’s a friend of her brother. They talk, they end up having sex, and the next day, Laura returns to find him gone—and discovers that her brother doesn’t know anyone named Jefferson. Happily unmarried in her thirties, Laura imagines that “what… people assumed would be her greatest regret—not having any children—she considered her greatest gift to the planet.” Then she finds out she’s pregnant, tells her parents she decided to have a child on her own, and names the baby Emma.

This is all undertaken with almost startling equanimity. Laura is coolly different from the rest of her family, an odd duck. She doesn’t care about sex or finding a man; single motherhood doesn’t much trouble her either. She’s worn the same white turtleneck, skirts, and cowboy boots for years, because she can’t abide the thought of her possessions ending up in a landfill, polluting the planet. (The rest of her family is not environmentally conscious.)

And yet, her convictions lack teeth. Laura can choose to not go through with her abortion with little angst because of a privilege that never forces her to make big decisions for herself. Her family is descended from a robber baron whose residence, which they own, is now a museum that also hosts weddings. After she graduates college, Laura becomes employed at the museum as a wedding planner, a job she keeps for the decade and a half that the book spans. This appears to be a pattern:

Laura had never even read the classifieds. There’d been no reason. Everything came to her through direct channels, and if her immediate network didn’t provide it, someone knew someone who could help. When deadlines were missed or obstacles encountered, a person of power or influence intervened on her behalf. Often this person didn’t know Laura: it was a friend of the family, a former classmate’s neighbor, the stepfather of a cousin-in-law—it didn’t matter. Phone calls were made; exceptions were granted; she was put on the top of the list.

When she gives birth to Emma, Laura interviews a slew of babysitters, one of whom Emma takes a liking to. The next thing we know, Laura has somehow changed her job contract so that she works part-time but still earns a full-time salary, with her benefits unchanged—obviating the need for a nanny.

But Laura isn’t completely oblivious, and she’s certainly not as odious as some of the other people in the book. Instead, she moves out of her parents’ home to an apartment “across the street” from Harlem, where she and Emma live alone—but even this comes off as a little performative. Laura congratulates herself for riding the subway: “The people who didn’t use it were missing out on a quintessential New York experience, never venturing out of their safe little bubble.” But the way her surroundings are described makes it clear that, wherever she happens to live, Laura is still an outsider. A evening in the area brings “an off-kilter chorus of unwholesome sounds as packs of hoodlums began swaggering about, marking their territory with gobs of spit and booming voices, while cars of bombastic proportions bounced through the streets…” When she invites Emma’s pediatrician over for dinner, she imagines that “their humble circumstances would impress and move him; they weren’t at all like his other patients”—a sure sign that, despite her address, Laura is more like them than she thinks.

The book is pointed but deadpan about the blithe, self-congratulatory delusions of the uber-privileged (“Life hadn’t required Laura to navigate unknown territory on her own, and the few occasions over the years where she had taken the initiative to do so had all been very empowering”). The author is in on the joke, the prose makes clear. But it feels like we’re left waiting for a punchline—all the book does is observe, and as subtle, artful, and polished Greathead’s writing is, the points she raises are never deeply addressed. Laura’s privilege is merely one aspect of her meandering, quiet life. It blazes out clearly at the beginning, then retreats into the background of the book as Emma grows up, becoming invisible to its beneficiaries and occasionally to the readers, just like privilege does in real life.

It would be too simple to say that Laura is bad because she doesn’t fully grapple with her privilege. (At the end, Emma shows signs of diverging from her mother in that regard.) Most of the time, what occupies Laura is concern for Emma’s well-being—when Emma rejects her shallow, cliquish classmates in prep school, Laura silently cheers her on; when she becomes inexplicably skinny, Laura frets even as her friends and mother compliment Emma on her new look. We’re privy to Laura’s dates with unappealing widowers, her close relationships with her sister-in-law and her best friend over the years. There are genuinely affecting moments of pathos, when Laura remembers a rare tender moment between her parents or a game she and Emma used to play. The novel is portrait, not polemic; its arc follows the artless path of life itself. And it’s also curiously hard to pin down—squint at the story one way and you see a woman’s life hollowed out by the very privilege that allows her to coast; look at it from another angle and you see a regular person living a multi-faceted, flawed life. (Really, who isn’t self-deluded at times?) And if we pay very, very close attention to the novel, it seems to promise, we might figure out what all of these well-formed vignettes are driving at. But I have to say that I eventually grew impatient with all of this. Because it felt, ultimately, like Laura & Emma was undermining its own existence by pressing the point: that the story of this privileged white woman was worth paying attention to. But the world doesn’t need to be convinced that the stories of privileged white women are worth paying attention to—no matter how quiet, offbeat, or imperfectly human they are.

Chelsea Leu is Books Editor at The Rumpus, and a writer and critic who's written for The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, WIRED, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Believer, and other publications. More from this author →