Fran Littlewood: Fighting Back Against Impossible Standards

Fran Littlewood
(photo: Lucia Littlewood Begg)

Fran Littlewood's previous work as a journalist is evident in the attention to detail found in her debut novel, Amazing Grace Adams (coming September 5, 2023, from Holt), the story of the title character's terrible day and the events that brought her to this moment. Littlewood holds an MA in creative writing from Royal Holloway, University of London. She lives with her husband and daughters in north London.

You indicated that Amazing Grace Adams was inspired by the 1993 movie Falling Down. What made this the right time, 30 years later, to return to that particular narrative?

It's one of those ideas I'd always had kicking around. I think we've all had those days from hell, haven't we? And, of course, it's not acceptable as a woman, societally, to show your rage. So the juxtaposition of taking this film, which features the character [played by Michael Douglas] who goes crazy on this day and putting not just a woman, but a midlife woman, into that same situation--I love the dark humor in that. I love the improbability of it, but also that borderline feeling that many of us have been at one time or another this close to losing it.

How does her being a woman change things? What's allowed (or not) to Michael Douglas's character that wouldn't be for Grace?

I was always aware that there was a line there. I think an awful lot of women are living with a low boil of rage because of these pressures that we're under, and I think the shaming of female rage--the way it is completely unacceptable to show that you're angry whereas men are allowed--is just another thing that silences women. It's another tool of oppression.

It's true for all women and girls, but particularly at midlife. The huge domestic burden, the emotional labor, everything falls to us, and we're squeezed in the middle with, on the one hand, aging parents who might be getting increasingly frail, and then at the other end of the spectrum, if you have children, you're dealing with teenagers and the delightful challenges that can bring. So there are so many pressures, and then being held to these standards? Grace is 45, and she's supposed to look 25, and everything is supposed to be perfection, again for all women and girls, but it becomes really acute in the midlife space, as you might start feeling that you're failing some of the beauty currency, the ideal beauty standard.

I love all the nerdy language references, appropriate given that Grace and Ben are both linguists. How difficult was it to balance the action with these smaller but no less important elements?

It's those small elements that I love the most. One of the things I struggled with when trying to get published was plot--as in, understanding that you needed to have a plot! That was a hurdle I had to overcome because I read for those moments that chime, those small, relatable moments. In terms of the language aspect, there was so much to mine in that, and I feel it was woven into the love in the book. This theme emerged of heartbreaking miscommunication, as Grace comes to realize that despite the fact that she speaks five languages, she can't find the words to articulate her heartsickness and her grief over what's happened to her family. She can't find the language to communicate with her daughter. And then with the social media rabbit hole that Lotte disappears into, Grace is forced to learn a sixth language.

More than once, Grace just walks away. What is it about that act that feels so much like freedom for Grace: "Quietly, calmly, she has taken the bolt cutters to social convention. She has set herself free."

I think there is a parallel to be drawn with the midlife aspect. I think about the self-consciousness that comes on through the teenage years, the way we shrink ourselves into the spaces prescribed for us. In midlife, you start to care less about how you seem. There's a level of uprising, and I'm undecided as to whether it's just that we're so exhausted that you can't keep up the facade, or whether there's a return to that more authentic self before the years of self-consciousness and the social conditioning that tells girls and then women how we need to behave.

In middle age, we are aware that the public gaze, which we might translate as the male gaze, starts to disappear, and we can feel freed by that. But we can also be trapped in a different way.

There's so much conflict and contradiction in this midlife space. You don't want the male gaze. You don't want these people looking at you and wolf-whistling you in the streets. But then, when it goes, there are so many questions around desire and desirability and, again, what we've been told as women and as girls is that our currency, our worth above and beyond everything, is beauty and youth.

Simultaneously, social media makes Lotte's generation feel unable to not be seen. Grace is becoming less visible as she's aware of how visible Lotte has to be--what does that visibility and invisibility mean for them?

In many ways, Lotte and Grace are at two ends of this spectrum. There's a moment when Grace looks at Lotte, looks at her body that seems to have been sculpted by angels, and then looks at herself and sees that her lips have almost vanished. It's an ambush, the ambush of age, but the fact remains that Lotte wrestles with the same insecurities. It's the realization that there's no ideal moment, no matter the age. We never feel we're good enough. The standards are impossible, and we can't meet them. We all feel like we're failing all the time. As intelligent, thinking women, you're horrified at yourself that you think this, and it feels like a guilty secret. But of course we're fighting a societal narrative. We're fighting the conditioning that we've had since birth.

Issues of power and powerlessness are constant in Grace's story. In fact, it could be argued that the novel is an answer to the question: What happens when a person feels erased or powerless? Was that your original motivation in writing this story?

When I first started to talk about the book, I felt myself wanting to say, Grace is a kickass woman, she's a warrior, and that's it. But I have this voice saying, yes, but she's also a bit tired. She's also quite overwhelmed. She's also carrying the battle scars. She's a midlife heroine, but I knew that I wanted to write the nuance into that. I wanted to erase that feeling of being erased by writing a woman who says and does all the things that we only dream of doing. When she abandons her car, she looks as though she's finally lost control. In fact, it's the moment she starts to wrest back control of her life as she sets up on this quest, and she's going to try and put things right. --Sara Beth West

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