I picked this up at a second-hand book stall that pops up at my uni every now and then, for only $4! Bargain! And, I had heard Thea Astley’s name thrown around as an Australian author that is quite good. No surprise, then, that I had only heard of her in the last few months. Heaven forbid the HSC teaching us (shock horror!) Australian texts. Anyhoo, enough ranting for today…
When George Brewster, aged 11, falls in love on a beach holiday with a girl he has just met, it sets off an obsession with women that lasts his entire life. Along with his long-suffering, though ever cheerful wife, he stumbles through life, eventually having a daughter of his own. Life does not settle down for George, though, who cannot keep his obsession with other women out of his life.
I’m going to be honest (and if anyone actually knows the answer, please tell me – it’s killing me), but I’m still not totally sure how serious this books was. I couldn’t tell if it was a satirical piece of writing, biting at gender roles in suburban Australia of the 60s, or if Astley was being serious. I’m leaning towards the satire, but it’s all a bit fuzzy. George’s wife is the most annoying woman – she seems not to care at all that her husband is constantly having it off with other women – other women who offer themselves with alarming frequency, despite their own marital status also theoretically preventing them from having it off with him. To be fair, though, he only tells her about one of his affairs, but even then, she cries for a few days, then all seems to be forgiven. This could, of course, be because she is a pretty shallow character, and is never really fleshed out properly.
This is the main thing that really made me question whether or not this book is having a go at society – it reminded me on so many occassions of the tone of Waugh’s Decline and Fall, particularly the way in which the characters seem to act as ciphers for larger groups of people within society – or whether Astley is trying to present what she truly believes happens in the ‘burbs. Which worries me, because most of the female characters in the novel are presented in terms of what they can do for George – not exactly flying the feminist flag, there.
Let’s talk about George for a bit. In the beginning, as this tortured love-sick teenager, he comes off quite well, considering how badly he is treated by the woman he (thinks he) loves, who is just using him, while she has her own affairs. When he finally finds out, he is pretty crushed, and spends the rest of his life pining for her. And yet, somehow, when he treats his wife in exactly the same way, he is totally blind to it – the whole world revolves around him, and he doesn’t learn from anything any woman has taught him, in love or otherwise. He walks through life completely oblivious to most people around him, unless they are a mildly attractive woman – whether they be young, middle-aged, single or otherwise.
The Well Dressed Explorer has gone the way of many other early (and later) Miles Franklin Award winners – out of print. Even though Thea Astley won three of the buggers (the most anyone has ever won), her popularity seems to have petered out a bit. Not unlike my enthusiasm for this book. Maybe this isn’t her best work – there’s not a lot on wiki telling me what her most famous/admired stuff is. Though, I love her language and style, so if anyone has anything to add, let me know. Please.