Imagine this: you just returned home from the airport only to find your garage on fire and your husband with his pants down along with his -younger than you-mistress. Added to the above, you are unlucky enough to have a photo of you taken with your pair of trousers stained from some leaked menstrual blood, immortalizing your humiliation for eternity and rendering it a subject of a heated debate on a nationwide scale. Sounds like a rather nightmarish scenario, right? Nevertheless, this is the situation that the protagonist of Jane Roper's sophomore novel, The Society of Shame, has to deal with. Kathleen Held is a perfectly ordinary, nondescript woman in her forties, or as she describes herself "a perimenopausal, middle-aged fool", who is married to Bill, an aspiring politician who runs for a seat in the Senate. Together, they have one child, Aggie, a prepubescent girl who faces challenges regarding her socialization. Kathleen will be, totally unwillingly, thrust into the spotlight as both her disgracing public exposure and her husband's infidelity put her in an impossible predicament. The overwhelming character of the circumstances leave her dazed and feeling sorry for herself. At one point, she thinks that "she would join the staid, swollen ranks of Wronged Politicians’ Wives and be forever associated with her husband’s infidelity—chained to her heartbreak and shame for eternity".
However, this is nothing else than the beginning of the story and Jane Roper, whom we first met in 2011 when her books Eden Lake and the memoir Double Time: How I Surived—and Mostly Thrived—Through the First Three Years of Mothering Twins were published, has a lot in store for the reader who witnesses the maelstrom of, both positive and negative, publicity that is induced by the issue becoming viral in social media, creating a new digital movement, in the likes of the -always topical- "MeToo". A new internet crusade is rising and people are entrenched around the newfound hashtag #YesWeBleed, aiming to destigmatize menstruation. The movement's followers see Kathleen as nothing less than an icon, a modern hero who defied norms and taboos and proudly proclaimed her female nature with its complex bodily functions. The whole thing soon devolves into a media circus, with polarization being the most prominent consequence of this domestic mishap that would remain completely unknown if it weren't for a nosy taxi-driver who had a knack for taking selfies with celebrities, such as Kathleen's politician husband. As the story develops, we read as Kathleen, after the initial shock, decides to take the matter into her own hands and when she intercepts a mysterious invitation that was originally intended for Bill, things take a radically different turn.
The seized invitation concerns a closed club called "The Society of Shame" that offers support and guidance to all those who have suffered the horrendous fallout of public humiliation. The motley group of its members consists of decadent actors, a popular novelist who has openly derided her own readers, various people who were unfortunate enough to be captured in video doing something untoward and more who relay their stories to Kathleen when she joins the society's meeting for the first time. We read as Kathleen's early rigid dismissal of the #YesWeBleed phenomenon as another nail in the coffin of her degradation, turning into a reluctant "let's see what I can do" attitude that quickly evolves in a full embrace of the movement and the concomitant media frenzy which is fed by the protagonist sparkling evermore ruckus and driving more and more people into two different "war zones" with the battlefield being the Internet, "our new merciless god" as Mary Wisniewski aptly puts it. Roper's project is ambitious, and she wants to say plenty of things about numerous subjects: public shaming, cancel culture, the rise and power of social media in contemporary western societies, the hypocrisy reigning in the world of politics and several more. This social and cultural commentary is conveyed through a comical, quirky text that chronicles the story as seen through Kathleen's perspective.
While I certainly can't fault the author for her grand aspirations, I'm inclined to think that the message(s) would be more efficiently conveyed if the novel was 100 pages shorter. There are parts that could be omitted, especially those where the characters seem to engage in meaningless (?), non-consequential for the overall narrative, conversations. However, this fact doesn't outweigh the novel's many merits and, above all, the playfulness of the descriptions and the whimsical dialogue which will be, undoubtedly, be relished by the readers who are attracted by -quality- works of comic fiction. The author's indisputable writing skills are all the more evident in the interposed excerpts from various television programs, where the interplay between the participants ring very truthlike to our ears. It should also be noted that the book consists of 28 chapters, each corresponding to a day in Kathleen's upturned life, which is also the length of the average menstrual cycle. The Society of Shame was well-received by the vast majority of the critics, with Kirkus Reviews describing the novel as one "that takes back shame while packing a funny and poignant punch", while the review published on Booklist concludes: "Roper’s latest is a hilarious romp through cancel culture, performative activism, and politics."
Apart from the purely satirical side, Roper's latest outing features several story elements that are meant to make the readers more aware of some disturbing realities throwing contemporary societies into disarray. It is a hilarious take on some of the hottest social plights and issues, and one of the most distinctive releases in fiction novels for 2023. Don't miss it.