In her debut novel, A Woman is No Man, Etaf Rum tells the story of three generations of Palestinian women who are struggling to be their own person and still be deemed respectable in their culture. The book tackles issues like abuse, gender roles, obedience, and freedom. We watch as the characters grapple with their place in life and the future they see for themselves.
What worked for me in this book was the ambition that Rum displays in taking on this story. She is not afraid to show her audience the bleak reality that so many women who deal with domestic violence confront daily. She shows how the abuse of women is systemic inside a family and how cultural expectation can exasperate that. A Woman is No Man is not representative of all women of Palestinian descent, just as no story about a White man is true for all men who identify as White (something I feel compelled to say, and yet at the same time annoyed for feeling like that isn’t self evident). Rum has created a version of the world that is true based on her experiences and her imagination.
A Woman is No Man has the makings of something powerful, though the execution fell flat for me. I wasn’t moved by the characters. They all blended together. Their pain was collective, and thus they functioned as a chorus instead of three distinct protagonists. Of all the female leads, Fareeda was the most complex and in turn the most interesting to read about. Overall, the men and women in the story felt more like vessels to make a point rather than fully developed humans. While I loved the structure (multiple points of view through generations) I found that the plot was lacking, which led to repetitive dialogue throughout. The ending came as no surprise to me, though the book seemed to be headed toward a big reveal.
Simply put, this book wasn’t for me. I appreciate the story that Rum is telling, even if I didn’t like the execution. I wished for more complexity and depth. A Woman is No Man felt safe, even though it was telling the story of immense pain and inner conflict. It is worth noting, while I didn’t love this book, it has had much success including making it on the New York Times Best Seller list, and being chosen by Jenna Bush Hager for the her book club on The Today Show.
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