Caught in the find-a-good-man era

Special to The Times

IN 1959, Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba, the Dalai Lama fled from Tibet to India, and the U.S. granted statehood to Alaska and Hawaii. But in 1959, Gainesville, Fla., the setting of Merrill Joan Gerber’s seventh novel, “Glimmering Girls,” the most newsworthy event -- revealed at an emergency meeting at the University of Florida -- is the discovery that the state-budgeted toilet paper has been squandered for the blotting of lipstick.

It is in this highly regulated world of college coeds that we meet Francie, the heroine of “Glimmering Girls.” On the brink of the ‘60s’ sexual revolution and women’s rights movement, the girls of Francie’s generation must suffer such indignities as the sign-out ritual, which requires them to specify with whom they are going, where and at what hour before their curfew they plan to return to their dorms. Their male companions, however, are not obligated to do the same.

As the reader might guess, Francie, like her namesake from the coming-of-age classic “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” wants more from life than merely an “MRS” degree. “Glimmering Girls” is the story of her struggle to break free from the status quo.


Her good-girl roommate, Mary Ellen, is always ready to lecture her on the importance of finding a husband before graduation. Whenever she does, Francie rolls her eyes. And yet, once Francie -- to the dismay of Mary Ellen -- moves out of her dorm in search of the freedom she couldn’t find on campus, we realize that her efforts might be in vain. Francie shares a house with her friends Amanda, Liz, Liz’s boyfriend and his twin best friends, but soon her two friends reveal that they aren’t as untraditional as Francie imagined -- both get married during her senior year.

At times Gerber’s characterization tends to be heavy-handed and her prose doesn’t always shine as brightly as the girls of the title. Too much is told rather than shown, and, in some cases, readers are shown and told (as if the author were afraid we didn’t get it the first time). Near the novel’s end, when Francie is refused a graduate fellowship because the dean fears she may marry soon, we learn -- as if we don’t already know by this point -- that “she feels she has been deprived during her college years by curfews, restrictions, dress codes. Freedom has been denied her because of her sex, her mere gender, by the sinister idea of stereotyping ... of being one of those ‘unreliable’ women who might show up flashing an engagement ring.... She knows she’s not ‘one of them’ -- she’s herself, Francie. She’s reliable, unique, and one of a kind.”

And yet there are scenes that carry “Glimmering Girls,” such as this skillfully crafted description of how Francie’s female classmates await their boyfriends on weekend dates, “holding their arms out like tree branches. Hanging from them are the flags of their good luck, their boyfriends’ shirts, which they have painstakingly ironed in their rooms, hung on wire hangers ... as proof of their future uses and talents.” When the girls enter their boyfriends’ cars, they find the passenger seats reserved for the shirts.

Such moments of bittersweet humor, and others of laugh-aloud cleverness -- such as when Francie’s Russian lit teacher describes the making of a great novel with the acronym FLUFF (Friction, Love, Unfaithfulness, Forgiveness, Forever After) -- allow “Glimmering Girls” to rise above the weight of its exposition. Which is a good thing because Francie’s journey to womanhood and self-awareness is still revelatory enough to warrant a read.

Lea Aschkenas is the author of the memoir “Es Cuba: Life and Love on an Illegal Island.”