Karolina is a professor of art history who specializes in the portrayal of women at the turn of the 20th century. She’s fortysomething, childless, and lives alone in Stockholm — in a smaller apartment and crummier neighborhood than those she recently shared with her partner of 11 years, Karl Johan. But she wasn’t in love with Karl, so she broke up with him. That’s not what women her age are supposed to do, and now she has to get used to the pitying looks that say, “Women in their forties don’t dump their partner. You’ve really made a mess of things now.”
But that’s just the thing that’s attractive about Karolina. She does what you’re not supposed to do. She thinks how you’re not supposed to think. Besides her newly single life, there’s her approach to her career. She once imagined her fellow professors would be having intellectual discussions, but now she understands that academia is just “a workplace like any other, with the same topics of conversation: the weather, the weekend, the kids, TV programs, the contents of today’s lunchbox.” She, however, loves art and culture “with a pathos and a conviction that she knew was old-fashioned, maybe even inappropriate.”
For Karolina, art is religion; at one point she walks past a museum, “a building in which she would have wanted to pray to a god. If she believed in a god.” But in academia there’s nothing that smells fishier than the words pray and god. You’re not supposed to mix emotion and beliefs with scholarship. She knows that relativism is fashionable, that one is supposed to talk of “the equal value of all expressions of culture,” but even back in her undergrad years “she had instinctively known that she didn’t think that way.” And now during faculty meetings she has an urge to scream, “Why do you want to destroy everything?”
While showing examples of motifs of how women are depicted, she warns her students away from the lazy thinking found on most campuses and in too many comments sections:
I want you to remember that we can’t demand the political correctness of today from pictures that are a hundred and twenty, a hundred and thirty years old. We’re not here to decide that the artists back then had an unacceptable view of women, and that these pictures are appalling. We are here to understand why they look as they do.
Karolina wants insights, not fish-in-a-barrel commentary condemning art as objectifying or misogynist. And she wants her peers to express opinions, not prepackaged ideas — “anything, just as long as they expressed some kind of feeling for the work itself and not just the theories surrounding it.”
No, she’s not a typical academic, nor a typical feminist. To her most thinking regarding feminism, or any -ism, is unoriginal. “[R]ight out of the catalogue,” as Philip Marlowe would say. Such catalog thinking is shown by her more successful (male) colleague Lennart Olsson, who declares that Karolina’s PhD advisee will be looking at “an extremely important feminist body of work.” Karolina responds, “I realize that’s a key word when you’re applying for grants, Lennart, but the fact that the artist is a woman doesn’t make this feminist research.”
In fact, while embodying the result of feminism — she is an independent, highly educated, relatively successful academic in a male-dominated field — she spends much of the book lamenting her life choices. Why couldn’t she have just gotten married and had children? she often asks herself. “Ordinary people are so spoiled with their ordinary lives that they don’t even reflect on the fact that they have them.” But she can’t be ordinary even if she wants to. She knows she didn’t love Karl, just as she knows she won’t be able to love Robban, the man from her hometown with whom she has a fling. She can see herself falling for the editor Hans Jerup, but after they sleep together he admits he has a celebrity girlfriend back in Copenhagen — a much younger and pregnant girlfriend. The man she really wants is Anders, with whom she had a sustained affair while she was with Karl. But Anders has children and is splitting from his wife … until they decide to get back together for the children.
It’s not fair. These men can date and marry and have children at any age, while she feels like “a failure, as if I’ve wasted years that I can never get back. Particularly as I’m a woman, and that […] damned biological clock is ticking away.” Yes, for an original thinker Karolina still has such commonplace thoughts. Yet the irony is that these thoughts are provocative because women like her are not supposed to be thinking them.
Bohman pushes this dilemma throughout the book, distilling its main thematic concerns to Karolina’s resigned question, “What was the point of the feminist struggle […] as long as the biology stayed the same?” Bohman’s issue is not the motivation behind feminism but the product of it. “In this most secular and liberated age,” Karolina thinks, “[feminism] has created fresh taboos that she enjoyed using for her fantasies. She wanted to give her body to men who definitely didn’t deserve her mind.”
She knows this is a terribly unfeminist thing to feel, but it’s her truth. And by expressing it, Bohman’s novel seems to be saying that no matter how intellectual people like to think they are, sexuality inevitably runs the show. No matter how much a person may want to be admired for her brains, she still wants to be admired for her looks, too. Karolina is no different:
[She] had recently paid around two thousand kroners for a cream that contained snake venom. It produced a mild allergic reaction that caused the skin to plump up just enough to make the wrinkles less prominent.
That is to say, it all comes down to desire, mating. “Surely biology couldn’t get the better of her, when she had read so many books?” It’s easy to picture Bohman smirking at Karolina as she wrote this, thinking, Oh, yes it could.
Karolina is the heroine, but there’s really nothing in her life to root for. She’s vain and opportunistic, and she admits she’s deceived everyone she has ever known. She’s a cheater, encourages others to cheat, and has inappropriate relationships that could get her fired. She drinks a river of wine and wastes a lot of time on the internet. Just the same, Karolina is so well drawn that she’ll be instantly recognizable to readers familiar with the existential struggle articulated in the famous line from Dante’s Inferno, “Midway in the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.” (Bohman quotes it for Eventide’s epigraph.)
But is a well-drawn character enough to sustain a novel? The only plot development the reader can hold on to, since all of Karolina’s romantic relationships evaporate before they can begin to solidify, is the potential breakthrough of her PhD advisee’s research. But what does that have to do with her? She’s not distinguishing herself with her own work, and isn’t finding fulfillment in the success of a younger man blasphemy for an independent, intelligent woman?
Maybe she really is a failure. But then again, as a colleague tells her, “Failure is merely a question of perspective.” Karolina lives by her own terms, and that alone is a courageous kind of success. Maybe the most important kind.
Randy Rosenthal is a writer and editor currently studying religion and literature at Harvard Divinity School.