Hello, everyone! The idea of workaholism is nothing new. And with COVID forcing many to work from home, the thin line between work and home life has practically faded away. But let’s jump in the time machine and travel back to 2005, a simpler time when the idea of Instagrammable hours spent grinding, promoting side gigs, and flexing one’s eternal hustle were a mere twinkle in the eye. Instead, the battle for a balanced life could be boiled down to the classic struggle between Blackberry and blackberry pie. How does the modern woman balance her high-powered career with her desire for a more traditional family life? Sophia Kinsella’s novel The Undomestic Goddess takes a stab at answering this thoroughly modern question in a way that is both fluffy and fascinating. Although her novel is ostensibly a silly rom-com, her examination of British working culture, feminism, and class politics gives the novel a solid structure beneath its frothy ruffles.
Synopsis: Samantha Sweeting has never made a mistake. As a senior associate at the prestigious London law firm Carter Spink, Samantha has proven her mettle with 80-hour work weeks, and if her social life has happened to fall by the wayside, she knows that her eventual partnership will make it all worth it. But when one simple error results in a catastrophic loss for the firm, Samantha flees London and finds herself in an idyllic village at the house of the Geigers, a nouveau riche couple in search of a housekeeper. Having spent her whole adult life buried in contracts, Samantha knows nothing about cooking, cleaning, or keeping house, but with the help of the handsome gardener, Nathaniel, and the support of the Geigers, Samantha starts to flourish. But what happens when her old life comes calling?
My thoughts: A lot of things have changed since 2005, but the idea that women can “have it all” if they want it hard enough refuses to die. When we first meet Samantha, she seems to fit the bill: first in her class at law school, and partner-track at her firm, Samantha is the poster-child for a 21st century feminist. But it’s clear from the beginning that Samantha’s priorities are skewed. In the first scene, she can’t even focus on her birthday massage appointment, which she’s put off for a year, without answering emails. She was planning on skipping her own birthday dinner, but only ended up attending because of a cancelled meeting. And when her housekeeper calls asking about how to turn on her washing machine, Samantha realizes she doesn’t even know. For all of her successes, we can see early on how stressed and over-worked Samantha seems, and her character starts to look like a caricature of a successful woman who sacrifices her life for her career.
If this novel was only focused on vilifying career women, I wouldn’t be interested. But although it initially seems like that’s Kinsella’s play, the next section of the novel subtly turns that idea on its head. As housekeeper for the Geiger’s, Samantha undergoes a crash-course in humility and class-politics. Accustomed to being lauded for her law acumen, she’s shocked by how the Geigers immediately assume that she’s uneducated and simple just because she’s a housekeeper. In one hilarious scene, Samantha stuns the couple who praise her “perfect English” by revealing that she is, in fact, English, too, which immediately makes her a sought-after prize. The idea that a white native-English housekeeper is more valuable to the Geigers than an immigrant is only lightly touched on in the novel, but it provides a quick glance at the classism inherent in British society.
Samantha’s first attempts at cooking and cleaning are played for laughs. As she tries to pull off complicated dinners and struggles to use a high-tech washing machine, one could assume that Kinsella wants the reader to laugh at Samantha’s haplessness, and even condemn her for her “failings” as a woman. But that’s an overly simplistic reading of this section. What I saw instead was Kinsella using Samantha as a vehicle to show how traditional feminine jobs, like cooking, cleaning, and housekeeping are undervalued by society, but in reality are as necessary and important as a profession like law. As Samantha becomes more adept at these jobs, and is taught to value the simplicity of baking bread, or tending a garden, she realizes that her learned disdain for those occupations is snobbish and hurtful.
These feelings are played out on a larger scale when Samantha’s old life returns to confront her new one. Although she values her job as a housekeeper, the disdainful reactions from her former colleagues shows her just how little she, and the people she has come to love, are valued in the world as a whole. From her mother insisting she get a “real” job, to her friend Guy insisting that her job as a housekeeper is an unfulfilling fantasy, to the Geiger’s insisting that she leave and pursue a better opportunity, Kinsella demonstrates the rift between the British uppercrust and working class. Even when Samantha insists to her detractors that she finds her life balanced and fulfilling, they refuse to believe that anyone could be happy in a working-class job. Smoothed by comedy and romance, Kinsella’s tone is not as damning as, say, North and South, but it’s clear that she finds little to admire in the attitudes of the British elite and much to sympathize with in the situation of the working class.
In the end, Samantha learns that she can’t have it all, but is content with having enough. It’s a cute and heartwarming ride to a satisfying ending, but a less than fantastical conclusion. Reading this novel 15 years after its publication, I find it funny that Kinsella could write virtually the same book with barely any changes. A great work-life balance is still almost impossible to achieve, everyone is glued to their phone, and the rifts between the upper-class and working-class has gotten even more pronounced. But Kinsella’s message still rings like a hopeful bell through the silence, imploring us to be someone who “looks out the window” instead of someone who would rather look at their email.
Final consensus: As a rom-com, The Undomestic Goddess is a delight, and as a commentary on class, gender roles, and culture, it’s an unexpected surprise. We readers can have our cake, eat it, and learn to bake one, too.