Cat Brushingby Jane Campbell
A rousing and original debut story collection that probes the erotic, emotional, and intellectual lives of elder women, Cat Brushing will be published in the author’s 80th year
Cat Brushing, the provocative debut by Jane Campbell, vigorously explores the sensual worlds of thirteen older women, unearthing their passions, libidinal appetites, integrity, and sense of self as they fight against prevalent misconceptions and stereotypes of the aging.
Written in spikey, incisive prose, this alluring cast of characters overcomes the notion that elder women’s behavior must be in some way monitored and controlled. Susan falls in love with her beautiful young caregiver Miffy, and embarks on an intense emotional relationship within the confines of her nursing home. Linda seeks out her former lover, Malik, despite having left him years ago to return to her settled marriage to Bill. Daisy, who, by a curious stroke of fate, finds herself at the funeral of her former boyfriend, Tim, relives their early life together, his betrayal of her and the anguish of that time. Martha, mourning her small dog whom she believes has been killed by the home care staff, works out how to manage a robot designed to record her behavior, and get her revenge. And the narrator of the title story, “Cat Brushing,” communes with her elegant, soft Siamese, reflecting on the sexual pleasures of her past.
The timeless wisdom and dark wit of debut writer Jane Campbell inspires and challenges, shocks and comforts as she examines the inner lives of women who fight to lead the rest of their lives on their own terms.
A New York Times Editors’ Choice
“It’s not every day—or every year—that you encounter a debut as fresh, assured and fun as Jane Campbell’s Cat Brushing from a writer of any age… [An] excellent, pathbreaking collection.”—New York Times
“A no-holds-barred collection of 13 dirty, doughty and often wickedly funny stories…Jane Campbell’s commanding voice — and wise insights about female empowerment, about embracing one’s twilight years and about feeling seen no matter how old you are — is one damn well worth listening to.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Challenging the stereotypical narrative of older women as weak or feeble, Campbell, an octogenarian herself, gives life to 13 women in stories centering on their passions, libidos and sense of self. Denying that invisibility arrives with wrinkles, these women experience a range of emotion — joy, heartbreak, trauma, regret and satisfaction — while living the lives they want on their own terms.”—Washington Post
“If you would expect an 80-year-old, first-time author’s story collection to be mild and nostalgic, think again. In this trail-blazing, provocative-in-the-best-way volume, Campbell upends expectations.”—Oprah Daily, 16 Books Not to Miss This Fall
“Strikingly original… These are characters rarely focused on in fiction, variously mischievous, wistful and unabashedly sensual. Campbell, 80, opens a much-needed portal into how it feels to approach life’s end.”—People Magazine
“A salient, imaginative view of the landscape of old age.”—Independent
“An exploration of libido, passions, and how older women maintain their sense of self as they fight against stereotypes of what it means to be an older woman.”—Toronto Star, Best Books of Summer 2022
“Campbell debuts at 80 with an accomplished collection centering the emotional and psychological lives of the elderly, delivering astute observations and sharp critiques, and restoring agency to characters who are routinely robbed of it… Ripe with sensuality, this is full of vivid portraits.”—Publishers Weekly
“This first collection plumbs the lives, longings, and ongoing intellectual turmoil of older women in language that’s light but tart and penetrating… A charming and incisive study of women in late life that will be revelatory to all readers.”—Library Journal, starred review
“[Cat Brushing] maintains a thorough sense of originality while delivering a stunning range of works on the inner lives of older women… The baker’s dozen of tales that make up Cat Brushing are all delivered through lean, incisive, witty prose that calls to mind the calculated directness of Ernest Hemingway and the furious expressiveness of Joyce Carol Oates… Within these women’s stories of loss, desire, pain and memory, we discover the feeling of holding onto something primal even as the world seems determined to forget that side of us. To capture such complexity in one story is powerful, but for Jane Campbell to do so 13 times makes Cat Brushing one of the most compelling fiction collections you’ll find this year.”—Bookpage, starred review
“Octogenarian Jane Campbell may be ‘new’ to the publishing industry, but her first book, Cat Brushing, is refreshingly accomplished. The 13 exquisitely drawn short stories in the collection are woven with wit and bold enlightenment. Each meticulously crafted gem focuses on the lives of aging women who grapple with their shrinking places in the world while coming to terms with feelings and failings, choices and losses… Aspects of regret, mourning, fantasies and lost love infuse these eloquently rendered, skillfully plotted stories that pack a wallop… In Campbell’s wholly original, late-in-life stories, the limitations compelled by age become surprising sources of wisdom and empowered liberation.”—Shelf Awareness
“Well-heeled, silvery-haired and clever, the heroines of these 13 refreshingly spiky stories from octogenarian author Jane Campbell are facing up to their futures and reliving their pasts. Once controlled, elegant and charming, they now are wryly attempting to take a new stance.”—Daily Mail
“In these debut stories, whose author is 80, growing old isn’t for the faint of heart… An affecting collection about the many indignities of being old.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Campbell’s writing is intimate and enveloping, and while main characters may share commonalities, their stories are quite eclectic. The rare perspective of Campbell’s collection makes this a breath of fresh air.”—Booklist
“Stepping into these stories by Jane Campbell feels like opening a door back into the world. The thrust of life, of longing and regret, of contempt and forgiveness, it’s all here in such vivid, delicious phrasing. She reads like Eudora Welty’s wicked British cousin, a lot of fun.”—John Freeman, editor of The Penguin Book of the Modern American Short Story
“‘…Anything between my legs is welcome these days,’ says the narrator with a warm cat on her lap in the title story of Jane Campbell’s terrific debut fiction Cat Brushing. In thirteen revivifying stories, thirteen candid, empathic portraits of aging women for whom desire yet smolders, Campbell proves aging is a complex sport. Some mental agility is required, some wit and wisdom. Befuddlement and remorse are a part of play, too, but the stories offer the solace of shared experience and company.”—Christine Schutt, author of Pure Hollywood
“Cat Brushing is a fierce and fascinating debut. I loved these women who have taken off their gloves to fight life with their bare hands.”—Lily King, author of Writers & Lovers
“Jane Campbell is a wonder! Much will be made of the fact that the author is publishing her debut at the age of eighty, and that she is writing about the often transgressive sexual lives of older women. But it’s her clear-eyed vision, rendered in prose as crisp as bone china, that had me rapt. This book flings open a heretofore shuttered window, giving us an invigoratingly fresh and absolutely essential view of the psychology and emotions and appetites of aging women. Jane Campbell, where have you been? We’ve needed you for a very, very long time.”—Jamie Quatro, author of Fire Sermon
“I loved these fresh, wry, strange stories; by turns moving and unnerving, they disturb expectations of the longings, loves and ambitions of older women.”—Megan Hunter, author of The Harpy
“Jane Campbell’s Cat Brushing is the debut of the decade, an eighty year old woman laying out the physical and spiritual struggle of life at its very end. I was haunted by these stories of older women falling, having strokes, dying—subjects often flattened into sentimentality—but in Campbell’s hands made both elegant and transgressive. We are striving creatures of intense desire, Campbell insists, until we are not.”—Darcey Steinke, author of Flash Count Diary
“I laughed out loud in joy and admiration so many times in this original, surprising book. These stories felt both deeply familiar to me and far too absent from many of our culture’s stories. Jane Campbell is a refreshing, compelling new voice.”—Kate Reed Petty, author of True Story
Reading group guide for Cat Brushing by Jane Campbell
Guide by Min Han
1. How do the protagonists in Campbell’s collection support or challenge your expectations of women and aging
2. Susan in “Susan and Miffy” believes that the crush she harbors on her young aide Miffy is strange and even “disgusting” by society’s standards, yet Susan can’t help but long for her. Is it love, lust, or something else that compels her towards Miffy?
3. How does the narrator of “Cat Brushing” preserve her sense of self through the physical and mental setbacks of aging? What forces threaten to rob her of her dignity?
4. In several stories, Campbell characterizes the erotic desires and satisfactions of her older protagonists in sensual detail. In what ways do these women’s views on sex differ and remain the same compared to their younger selves?
5. In “Schopenhauer and I” the narrator is given the companionship of an adaptive robot after her beloved dog is taken from her. Discuss how Campbell portrays the story archetype of “(wo)man against society.” Are the demands on the narrator justified?
6. The last century has seen tremendous progress in women’s rights in the western world. Do the heroines in these stories seem to remain beholden to societal norms and standards of a particular era?
7. What roles do the settings of Bermuda (“The Kiskadee,” “Cat Brushing”) and Southern Africa (“Lamia,” “On Being Alone”) play in their respective stories
8. Compare the deaths of the narrators in “183 Minutes” and “Lamia.” Do you think Campbell intended for them to be read as tragic? Why or why not?
9. What does Mrs. Simpson want to ask Gordon after her fall in “The Question”?
10. Several stories revolve around the desire to recover the past by revisiting or inhabiting old memories (“Le Mot Perdu,” “The Question,” “The Kiskadee,” “Lamia”). What do the experiences of these narrators seem to suggest about trying to relive the past?
11. The older characters in “Lockdown Fantasms” are given a choice that the narrator at one point reduces to the difference between the “hug from a consistently present child” or the “embrace from a transient lover” (pp. 90-91). Which would you choose and why
12. Several stories include the reactions of family members upon learning about their loved ones’ deaths. What’s the effect of including their viewpoints in the stories?
13. Compare and contrast the two women in “The Kiskadee” and “183 Minutes.” In what ways do they exercise agency? Are these women to be more pitied or admired?
14. A number of Campbell’s protagonists form unconventional and strong attachments to another person, animal, or image that seem to eclipse their ties to the living. What purpose might these surrogates serve for the protagonists?
15. “To be alone you need to need someone who is absent,” reflects the narrator in the collection’s last story, “On Being Alone” (p. 237). Do you think it is her fate or her choices that have made her this way?
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