This funny, timely novel starts with the most embarrassing night of a woman’s life. She comes home to find her garage on fire, her senatorial candidate husband in his underwear, and a passed-out young woman nearby. A cab driver snaps a picture, which goes viral, and includes our poor, betrayed heroine with a big, red, round, menstrual stain on the seat of her pale green capris.
Which humiliation is worse—her husband’s infidelity, or the fact that a forty-ish perimenopausal woman was caught in a feminine hygiene malfunction? The internet, our new merciless god, will decide. After the photo makes the rounds, Kathleen Held finds herself the involuntary mascot for a moment called #YesWeBleed, which wants to destigmatize menstruation. Suddenly, her face has been transposed onto a Rosie the Riveter poster as a “stop period shaming” icon.
At first, all Kathleen wants to do is hide. But with the help of a mysterious self-help group called “The Society of Shame,” Kathleen decides to “steer into the swerve” and take advantage of her position—doing interviews, getting a book deal, and becoming a feminist meme. Unfortunately, the price of fame is scrutiny of her every move. Also, Kathleen’s growing love of the spotlight starts to hurt her relationship with her twelve-year-old daughter, Aggie.
Meanwhile, Kathleen’s husband, Bill, is trying to survive the political fallout. He’s running against a former heavy metal musician turned right-wing troll, so as bad as Bill is, you’d still vote for him.
Roper reveals the cruelty and absurdity of modern fame, showing it in all its gaudy colors. Detractors scoff about how a “Rich white lady bleeds through her organic cotton pants… Cry me a river Karen,” while supporters tweet “I’m totally regretting all the times I scrubbed my blood out of my underwear like it was a stain instead of a gift.” Kathleen’s adventures are interspersed with transcripts of news conferences, morning talkshow chatter and comment threads that are hilariously close to the real thing.
Kathleen starts as a dowdy, insecure character, the kind who is afraid that the home espresso maker will start “hipster-splaining at her if she made an amateur move that would detract from the awesomeness of her beverage.” At first, her decision to accept her fame looks like growth—a new haircut, some confidence. But she becomes swept up into a talkshow-centered life, and spends too much energy worrying about what strangers think of her. Social media makes it easy to cross the line from healthy self-confidence into narcissism. We watch her become ungrounded, and then unglued.
The manic media circus overpowers the more complex, potentially more affecting story of Kathleen’s relationship with her daughter and husband. Bill’s character is underdrawn, and Kathleen doesn’t really grieve their long marriage. Similarly, the exploration of Kathleen’s troubles with Aggie could have gone deeper. There could be a lot to say about the relationship between a socially struggling prepubescent girl and a mother on a journey of self-realization, and the book doesn’t say enough. The novel could have used more about these relationships and less about Society of Shame members (an actor caught talking dirty on a hot mic, a woman who called the police on a Black utility worker), whose chatter becomes repetitive.
Still, the book is fun, and a welcome satire on modern life. It’s hard to believe anyone would actually wear crocheted red-and-white menstrual cup hats or tampon earrings, or engage in a counter movement telling women to shut up already about their periods (#PlugItUp and #YesWeBreed). It’s also hard to believe that someone could completely fabricate his life story and still get elected to Congress. Yet here we are.
“The Society of Shame”
By Jane Roper
Penguin Random House, 352 pages, $28
Mary Wisniewski is a Chicago writer and author of “Algren: A Life.”