Dec 21, 2011

The Weeknight Book Club: The 'Bride Books' by Nikki Gemmell.

Today's review is more of a series of reflections and responses to Nikki Gemmell's often controversial novels, 'The Bride Stripped Bare' and 'With My Body'.  Not actually prequel and sequel, the publisher has referred to the novels as a pair that accompany one another.  'The Bride Stripped Bare' was first published (anonymously at first) in 2003 and 'With My Body' in 2011.  I'd be really interested to know how you reacted to these novels if you've read them.  For those of you contemplating reading the novels, both are quite graphic and explicit in their exploration of sex but I will keep my discussion here strictly PG.

At the heart of both novels are women with fractured relationships with their mothers or mother figures.  The sexual relationships at the core of each novel push conventional boundaries and serve as a catalyst of change within the women.  It is the repercussions of these changes that Gemmell explores so intelligently.  Beyond the explicit scenes are novels that challenge the reader's previously held conceptions about love and marriage.

Image from
'The Bride Stripped Bare' is a memoir told in the first person of a comfortably (but not always happily) married woman in her 30s who has just had a child and has also gone missing.  She is a writer and her memoirs are brief chapters that reference a 16th century text called 'A Woeman's Worth' which catalogues the attributes of a good woman's thoughts and behaviour.  The title is taken from the painting by Marcel Duchamp.  I am linking to an interview with Nikki Gemmell about the novel here.

The Bride is in an unsettled period of her life.  She longs to write a novel and is now in a position to stop work and do this.  She begins her research in the library and soon meets an attractive, sexually inexperienced Spanish man called Gabriel and begins her sexual education of him.  The Bride is in a position of power in the early, heady days of the illicit relationship.  This power with its physical pleasure eases the uncertainties and anxiety of the impending birth, the strained relationship with a mother who has a stronger affinity with her job than her children and the shifting dynamic of the friendship with Theo, a girl friend with whom The Bride goes a long way back.

The sexual relationship with Gabriel takes The Bride to new emotional highs and perhaps moral lows.  As time goes on and there is less to teach her student, The Bride's power over him weakens.  It seems that all her relationships take unexpected turns.  Her husband becomes a doting and attentive father, Theo the married friend takes on less innocent roles in The Bride's life.  The memoirs end with a statement explaining how they were found by The Bride's mother.
Image courtesy of
'With My Body' is the journey of woman in a stable marriage with three energetic young sons.  She (my name for the nameless narrator and main character) leads the life of a middle class stay at home mother in England - the creature comforts, the veiled competition with other school mothers and the reality of life as the woman responsible for a household 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Previously a successful lawyer, She stopped working to stay home for her sons when they needed her most in these early years of their lives.

She has a past life, one in rural Australia where she became a woman during a life altering relationship with a reclusive writer called Tol.  The summer of their physical relationship gave her confidence and power when life at home was changeing rapidly.  Her widowed father remarried.  Her step mother proves to be a 'good wife' to her husband, with limited education and intelligence but an unending obedience to 'her man' and her role as wife and home maker.  Through the eyes of an intelligent and attractive teenager, The Stepmother is insipid and to be hated with a vengeance.

Tol creates a woman out of She.  A woman of the 'modern time' who is confident in her sexuality.  Their time together is an ongoing experiment and series of lessons.  She proclaims her love for Tol and finally, tellingly, Tol admits his love for her.  They write their reflections in a notebook and there is ongoing study of and references to the work of erotic literature authors such as Colette and Nin.  There are references to Abelard and Heloise, the educated 12th century lovers who were parted by tragedy and corresponded with such passion and thought throughout their separation.

Abruptly, Tol leaves the country town.  She returns to school a woman hardened by the loss of the man she thought loved her.  The anger and rejection spur her on to excel at school and to then become a successful lawyer in Sydney.  Her unrequited love for Tol has far reaching implications as She moves through life mostly single or in short term relationships before moving to London and eventually meeting her husband.

In an attempt to reconcile the past that is poisoning her future, She returns to her home town with her children.  She sees her stepmother with new eyes and her boys are welcomed by her father.  She makes her way to the homestead that was the location for her time with Tol.  The house is neglected but the room where they met appears to be lovingly tended to, left almost as a shrine to her presence.  She does make contact with Tol and this sets the course for her to confront what happened, why it happened and how it has the power to shape her current relationship for the better.

That took a fair few more words than I thought it would.  Sorry about that.

Gemell has used these novels to go beyond the surface of the marriages of women in their thirties.  How their present relationship is a function of past loves and relationships with their own mothers.  Gemell has also writen of her desire to reveal the honest truth about sex as it pertains to relationships.

These are novels that I think every woman will have a very personal response to based on their own lives and experiences.  They are works that provoke a reaction in even the most detached reader. 

For me, I had no personal context with which to relate to 'The Bride Stripped Bare'.  At times I found The Bride selfish and self absorbed and really could not empathize with the predicament she created for herself.  It was an engrossing read though.  Both because of the degree of confrontation and also Gemmell's style of prose.

On the other hand, 'With My Body' is the novel that moved me more deeply.  I could relate to the narrative of life's lessons learned from that first 'True Love'.   That sense of coming full circle after reflecting on the past in order to brighten the future.  That first heart break left She with many lessons and gifts for her future.  Things that could only be appreciated with the fullness of time.

Strangely, I feel as if these novels have taken my on a very intense emotional journey.  Reading them has provoked some reflection on my life (which I will say for the record has been nowhere near as dramatic as the lives of either of these characters) and I have come away thinking more deeply about my adult relationships outside of marriage as well.

So, let me know how you felt about the novels, if you've read them.  I've got that whiz bang Disqus function on my comments now so perhaps it will be more of a conversation than with previous book reviews.


  1. Lorraine @ Not Quite NigellaDecember 21, 2011 at 7:21 PM

    I've read The Bride Stripped Bare and enjoyed it although a friend didn't (although I think she was overwhelmed by the hype and it is hard to match hype).

  2. Leanne Shea LangdownDecember 22, 2011 at 11:05 AM

    Look at you with new "clothes" on!! Love the fresh new look.
    Merry Christmas SSG and a very happy New Year.
    I hope that 2012 bring you lots of hope, wisdom and helps you achieve a few dreams.
    Love your work and thanks for being such a great bloggy friend.
    Love and hugs
    Leanne @ Deep Fried Fruit

  3. Hello Leanne!
    Thank you, my friend.
    SSG xxx

  4. It's one of those novels that does polarize, I think.

    SSG xxx


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