lip lit: claustrophobia
Claustrophobia by Tracy Ryan leads the reader down a trail of lies, lust and obsession.
Penelope Barber, happily married, finds a decade-old letter written by her husband to his ex-lover, Kathleen Nancarrow. It convinces her that their marriage had been built on nothing but a lie and the recipient of the letter becomes the object of her obsession. Instead of finding a dangerous villain, Penelope encounters a beautiful and intelligent woman, and they tumble into an affair, built on their shared love of French literature and Scarlett Johansson.
Although caught in a world of deception Penelope finds empowerment in this new relationship. With Kathleen she can dream of things she never felt possible in her marriage: a trip to Paris, a career of her own. Regardless, she sinks into further anxiety as her deception deepens, torn between her passionate relationship and the stability of her marriage. Penelope begins to resent her husbands control.
The reader is left in suspense with every turn of the page. Will she go back to her husband or pursue this new, empowering relationship?
Ryan brilliantly transports the reader into the claustrophobic mind of Penelope through its rich description of her confused thoughts and nervous mannerisms. She fights throughout the novel to uphold social expectations and the reader quickly learns that what she says is very different to how she feels.
The most disappointing aspect of this novel is its simplistic representation of women. Firstly, Ryan perpetuates the pop-culture myth that all women hate each other; secondly she appears to condemn relationships that break traditional gender roles.
From the outset, semmsnatural that the protagonist sees other female characters as nothing more than her rivals. Her dysfunctional relationships with her mother, female colleagues and initially Kathleen are all portrayed to stand in the way of her most important relationship: her marriage.
As a reader you heave a sigh of relief when Penelope enters into a relationship with Kathleen, because she sees her not as competition but a companion (albeit beginning a coupling built on lies). The reader finally sees a genuine connection between two women that is not based on rivalry over a man, but rather mutual respect and admiration.
It all must come to an end however.
The novel concludes with Penelope’s husband, Derrick, regaining control and cleaning up the mess she has made. It reads as a cautionary tale, warning women who break away from a stable and compliant heterosexual relationship they are doomed to fail.
It could have been the web of her deception, rather than the break from social norms, that led to Penelope’s undoing. But it is more than lies and deceit that lead to the unravelling of Claustrophobia‘s protagonist: just like in horror films where the ‘slut’ character is slaughtered first, so is an uncompliant female punished for her disobedience.
Indeed, even Kathleen, a confident and intelligent woman who has deceived no one and lived comfortably with her sexuality, is also punished at the end of the novel. Although a victim to Penelope’s lies, Kathleen’s undoing results from nothing more than breaking social expectation and refusing to conform to traditional gender roles.
Derrick, Penelope’s husband, regains power and is ultimately the winner of the novel. He is rewarded for maintaining his traditional role as husband and breadwinner, and recapturing his wife. This ending undoes any story of female liberation.
Tracy Ryan’s Claustrophobia is a suspenseful page-turner. For a feminist-minded reader, however, the replaying of the ‘bitch’ stereotype, and the warning to women who break traditional gender roles, is dismaying. Not to mention unimaginative.