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Before we begin, two notes: (1) I don't think it possible to discuss this book adequately without revealing the cliffhanger (or coat hanger) ending, so if you haven't read the novel yet you may prefer to do so first; and, (2) I am going to discuss the book that Ms Greig has written though I realize that may not be the one she intended. This latter gives the author the benefit of the doubt and improves the grade of the book.

The novel is set at a university and a time that seem to roughly correspond to Ms Greig's own school days at Sussex University in the 70s. Susannah is a bright philosophy student involved in a live-in relationship with a slightly older man. He's an antiques dealer and the physical passion in their relationship has cooled. Meanwhile, she's attracted to Rob, a fellow student. Even as she wrestles with the ideas of Nietzsche, Feyerabend, Heidgger, Kuhn, and Kierkegaard, she becomes pregnant and must decide which if either of these men she would raise the child with, if she decides to give birth.

Susannah's personal philosophizing begins with Nietzsche, after another student goes crazy reading him:
'As I finished the last page of Human, All Too Human... I felt elated. I may have spent the whole day lying on the floor half dressed, reading Nietzsche and smoking and drinking cups of tea, but that didn't mean that I was a dosser, or that my life was empty and isolated. It meant that I was a free spirit, and like the free spirits of the past, I had a secret destiny, a task to do. I just wasn't sure what it was yet.'
This notion, of the self as utterly free of moral and social restraints, is rather juvenile, but she's a youngster, so we can cut her some slack. That bit about the "secret destiny" comes back to haunt though, in the form of the pregnancy. Indeed, she later states her dilemma in just the sort of selfish fashion one would expect from someone immature enough to find Nietzsche profound: "I was on my own... There would have to be a sacrifice: my child or my work." Unravel that sentence and you stumble over the "on my own" from someone who, by definition, is not on their own since they're with child and the possessive "my child" before even getting to the cold calculation of the choice she poses herself: a life or her work.

In the middle portion of her studies, Susannah is challenged by the critiques of Science and Reason that Popper, Kuhn, Feyerabend and others offered and we begin to hope that she may be able to outgrow mere rationalism, especially the anti-human variant that a friend preaches at her as an excuse for killing the baby. Susannah responds:
I think you're wrong about this abortion. It's not just like having a tooth out. It's not just a bunch of cells. It's a potential human being.

[I]t's a living being. I don't know if I can kill it.
And when she then moves on to reading Kierkegaard and the parallels with Abraham and Isaac become apparent to her, she seems on the verge of taking the "leap of faith" and keeping the child.

However, our confidence that Susannah is even capable of making a wise decision is tempered by the realities of her life and her behavior. Cheating on her boyfriend is no more forgivable because he turns out to be a closeted homosexual. Likewise, her view of the sex she has with Rob is freighted with a significance he doesn't attach to it. And when she throws herself at their professor, who is obviously tortured by his failure to help the student who had a breakdown, it's just pathetic. So it is certainly in keeping with Susannah's essential vacuousness and failure to develop as a person generally but a moral philosopher in particular that she goes ahead and kills the baby. more than that, she serves as the perfect guide to the evil core of modern European philosophy. That "destiny" Susannah had felt coming turns out to be the killing of another human being, one she treats as no more important than a tooth after all. And who will celebrate her choice of "her work" over that child's life when her own philosophy allows for that blithe termination?

One would like to think that Ms Greig's intent is to hold Susannah up as just such an example of the malignancy of Europe's secular rationalism. But in an interview she had the following to say:
"I wrote two endings, actually," Greig confesses. "I didn't know when I was writing it what she was going to do. Obviously I had to go back again and change a few things once I'd decided, but I really was with her, I just didn't know what she ought to do, and I think that was the point of the Kierkegaard - just struggle with it. Keeping faith with oneself, ie, not just accepting the social attitudes of the day. I suppose I wanted to investigate what happens when you go beyond that - what do you want? What do you need? How are you thinking about your own life?"
This is a radical misunderstanding of the leap of faith. We are not called to have faith in ourselves, but in God. Isaac is saved precisely because Abraham has this unshakable faith. Susannah's child dies because she has faith in herself instead. Such is the murderous tragedy of post-Christian Europe.


(Reviewed:)

Grade: (C+)

  

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Women Authors
Charlotte Greig Links:

    -AUTHOR SITE: CharlotteGreig.com
    -WIKIPEDIA: Charlotte Greig
    -MYSPACE: Charlotte Greig
    -AUTHOR PAGE: Charlotte Greig (Random House)
    -BOOK SITE: A Girl's Guide to Modern European Philosophy (Other Press)
    -GOOGLE BOOK: A Girl's Guide to Modern European Philosophy
    -PROFILE: My Philosophy: Charlotte Greig (TPM, Issue 44)
    -INTERVIEW: Singer-songwriter Charlotte Greig discusses her debut novel: Singer-songwriter Charlotte Greig has five acclaimed folk albums under her belt. Now a new career beckons with the publication of her debut novel, which takes on the great male philosophers and twists their lessons to fit a young woman's life (Interview by Suzi Feay, 1 July 2007, Independent)
"I wrote two endings, actually," Greig confesses. "I didn't know when I was writing it what she was going to do. Obviously I had to go back again and change a few things once I'd decided, but I really was with her, I just didn't know what she ought to do, and I think that was the point of the Kierkegaard - just struggle with it. Keeping faith with oneself, ie, not just accepting the social attitudes of the day. I suppose I wanted to investigate what happens when you go beyond that - what do you want? What do you need? How are you thinking about your own life?"

    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: with Charlotte Greig (Julian Baggini, The Philosophers’ Magazine. )
    -READING GROUP GUIDE: A Girl’s Guide to Modern European Philosophy by Charlotte Greig
    -
   
-REVIEW: of A Girl's Guide to Modern European Philosophy by Charlotte Greig (AC Grayling, B&N Review, with response from Charlotte Greig)
    -REVIEW: of A Girl's Guide to Modern European Philosophy (Olivia Laing, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of A Girl's Guide to Modern European Philosophy (Aesthetica)
    -REVIEW: of A Girl's Guide to Modern European Philosophy (Sheena Joughin, Independent)
    -REVIEW: of A Girl's Guide to Modern European Philosophy (Amanda Heller, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW: of A Girl's Guide to Modern European Philosophy (Leah Greenblatt. Entertainment Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of A Girl's Guide to Modern European Philosophy (Natasha Tripney, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW: of A Girl's Guide to Modern European Philosophy (The Amber Show)
    -REVIEW: of A Girl's Guide to Modern European Philosophy (Lily Azerad-Goldman, Book Pleasures)
    -REVIEW: of A Girl's Guide to Modern European Philosophy (Michelle Kerns, Armchair Interviews)
    -REVIEW: of A Girl's Guide to Modern European Philosophy (Publishers Weekly)

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