In Commune of Women (July 2011), six unsuspecting women converge upon LAX airport on an ordinary morning and are suddenly and forcibly thrust upon each other as they flee a terrorist attack. Each seeks refuge in the same airport employee lounge to escape the chaos and spraying bullets. Sophia, a natural leader of Amazonian proportions, easily takes the lead as she proves her mettle by tending to the lone gunshot victim in the group. Erika, a corporate executive on her way to a business meeting overseas, suffers a bullet wound and must put her life in the hands of strangers under extreme stress. Pearl, a homeless woman, has a rough and gritty exterior that gives way to boundless wisdom and inner strength. Heddi, a Jungian analyst from an obscenely wealthy family, harbors dark secrets as she rallies her skills to try and help the others. Betty, a grossly overweight housewife, suffers from her family’s recent splintering. Finally, there is Ondine, a self absorbed artist who has suffered a terrible loss and lacks the ability to connect to her life. Both Betty and Ondine are Heddi’s patients.
This story focuses mainly on women: the various female archetypes, their complexities, their complicated relationships, and the transcendence of womanhood itself. The way Still chose to explore the intertwining lives of these women is reminiscent of No Exit, the existentialist French play by Jean-Paul Sartre, in terms of hell being other people and having to face this against will and in such close proximity. Still mentions that the idea for her novel came from Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, an examination of four perspectives on a single event. In Commune of Women, Still adds the element of various perspectives being formed right before our eyes as the main event is taking place.
Told in the character’s alternating voices, we come to learn about each woman and what their personas truly represent. The only character largely unexplored is Erika, though there was enough background given on her to adequately explain her character. However, due to her wound, she was the only woman in the room who did not get the opportunity to share her story in detail.
The airport is held hostage by a lone group of terrorists all hailing from various war-torn countries. Each of the terrorist’s backgrounds is explained by way of X, the lone female on this mission who is thrust into the monitoring room during the airport’s initial takeover. She is part of the Kulter Klub, a group of displaced refugees who were all along silently being groomed for this evil mission. Along with her boyfriend Jamal, X embarks on a journey that fundamentally changes who she is and what she will become. From her vantage point, she can see much of the terminal (including the outside perimeter) which offers her the opportunity to garner more information regarding who is behind their sinister mission. This becomes a critical point in her story.
Still sections the novel into the four days the women were held hostage. These sections are comprised of short passages from each of the characters (including X) so the story is always easy to follow. Longer passages are included when each woman is actually telling her own personal history.
The women themselves each prove to be far more interesting than they are at face value. The phrase “never judge a book by its cover” figures prominently as the reader becomes aware of the person below the exterior. A central theme of acceptance in spite of vast differences emerges. These women all come from such different walks of life. In spite of this, some of the women have an instant connection and deep and abiding respect for one another—as evidenced by the bond between Pearl and Sophia. Their relationship was one of the more poignant and touching parts of the story. Pearl’s tribute to Sophia at the end of the story was easily my favorite part.
Expectedly, some of the women are like oil and water. We are aware of Heddi’s intense dislike of Pearl perhaps because Pearl is someone who would never have had need for Heddi’s services and because Pearl reminded Heddi of her own horrible secrets locked away. Pearl has lived through so much hell in her life that even this ordeal doesn’t faze her. She is actually the only one in the group who seems almost comfortable settling in for the long haul. Pearl wears her dark past on her sleeve and she is too much an affront to Heddi’s carefully constructed persona. As the story progresses, the cracks in Heddi’s armor begin to appear. For example, while Sophia, Betty and Ondine are called to action, Heddi is all but paralyzed by the situation. Since Heddi is both Betty and Ondine’s therapist, she is put in the unimaginable situation of having to dissolve their dynamic due to their circumstances as well as Heddi’s own shortcomings.
Through the telling of their backgrounds, the characters offer us a glimpse of how they will process this event in the years to come. There are many instances where the reader is left to draw their own conclusions about the outcome. This lack of resolution doesn’t always work in a novel yet this is one where it absolutely does.
Commune of Women provides a powerful look inside the psyche of women and the ways in which they navigate their interpersonal relationships. This story however goes on to explore women both under the influence of and in spite of patriarchy while examining the deep well of women’s intuition, a notion that in many cases is mocked in our society. Anyone interested in or seeking to better understand women’s issues will benefit from reading Commune of Women. I highly recommend this book to anyone taking a woman’s study course as it will provide a wealth of depth that can only serve to enhance the experience. I also recommend taking the time to read the conversation with the author and the reading group questions at the back of the book as these will help to incite the types of questions that will deepen understanding of this vast topic and its many themes.
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