A Girl's Guide to Modern European Philosophy is either women’s fiction with a literary twist or literary fiction with a woman’s twist, depending on how you look at it. Susannah, the twenty-year-old main character of the novel, is a philosophy student at Sussex University in England in the 1970s. She is in a relationship with Jason, an “older man” (he is her elder by ten years) who is an antiques dealer. Though she has feelings for Rob, a fellow philosophy student at her university, Susannah sees Jason as security. His income is steady, plus he is more mature and in a more stable position. Though the passion in their relationship has been dying a slow and painful death, and Jason seems to be spending more and more time away from home, Susannah is relatively content with her life.
All that changes when Susannah begins an affair with Rob. Though he professes to be in love with her, Susannah sees Rob as immature as compared to Jason. Still, she can’t deny the chemistry between them.
Additionally, Susannah still has not come to terms with her father’s death, which happened over a year ago. As a result, she is detached from the world, increasingly tentative with her connections to it. She begins having horrific nightmares, and the only way to wake up is to yell as loudly as possible, screaming herself awake. For solace, she turns to the philosophers she has been studying. Can their words apply to her life? Can they help her figure out what to do and how to begin the healing process?
A Girl's Guide to Modern European Philosophy is an entertaining and multi-layered read. The inclusion of philosophy within the book takes it to an entirely different level. Susannah struggles with her boyfriend situation and the death of her father, but she is also having an existential crisis. It’s fascinating and insightful to see what philosophers she connects with and what quotes she finds meaningful, as is watching her try to apply these philosophers’ words to her own life as some sort of guide. The book is never overwhelming when it comes to philosophy, though. There is enough to keep it interesting, but not to drag it down.
Of the many moral debates in A Girl's Guide to Modern European Philosophy, the most interesting is on abortion. In many ways, abortion is still a taboo subject within literature. Grieg presents it as a discussion/argument between two of the characters, and it’s fascinating to see what women in the 1970s thought of abortion after fighting an uphill battle to legalize it. The opinions of the time seem to mirror the discussion as it stands today.
A Girl's Guide to Modern European Philosophy is an interesting novel. While I had trouble relating to Susannah, it was still an insightful read, and I’m glad I took the time to pick it up.