Book Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling

I did not hear about this book until it was revealed that J.K. Rowling was the author. C and my brother were kind enough to get it for me for Christmas and I couldn’t wait to read it.

As a general reader, I greatly enjoyed it. It really kept my interest and J.K. Rowling has the uncanny ability to create worlds you want to be a part of (even when they are lacking magic). I thought I knew early on how the book would end, but still, I was never bored.

As a feminist reader, however, I was rather disappointed. Being a big fan of Harry Potter, I expected at least one Hermione-type character (driven, intelligent, not easily swayed, focused), and while there was one character that was somewhat like this, she did not exude the same strength that has inspired so much love for Hermione.

A very quick synopsis: The book is about a man name Cormoran Strike, a private detective, who is hired out by a wealthy lawyer (John Bristow) to investigate the supposed suicide of his sister, Lula Landry.  Robin Ellacott is Mr. Strike’s temporary secretary who proves herself invaluable. The story focuses mostly around these two and where the investigation takes them.

Roles of Women

The majority of the men in the book are private detectives, police officers, lawyers, accountants, actors, computer hackers, designers, and soldiers. There is a male doorman and male chauffeur. The majority of the women in the book are receptionists, waiters, models, makeup artists, stay at home mothers, house cleaners and gold diggers. Some were homeless and mentally unstable, sold their family’s stories to the paparazzi for money and extremely manipulative. I would say there was at least one man who was mentally unstable and manipulative as well as money driven.

Why this bothers me: These representations of male and female are highly stereotypical. There are female private detectives, police officers, lawyers, accountants, actors, computer hackers, designers and soldiers. There are also male receptionists, waiters, models, makeup artists, stay at home fathers, house cleaners, and gold diggers. These variances may not be as common, but to place men squarely over here and women squarely over there is not accurate.

Sexualized Descriptions

While the male characters physical appearances were described, they were never as sexualized or as descriptive as the female portrayals that permeated the book. The male descriptions also tended to focus only on the face and hair (rather than the whole body).

Male descriptions:

“Boyishly good-looking, with thick, wavy brown hair now frosted with snow…”

“Strike had the high bulging forehead, broad nose and thick brows of a young Beethoven…his thick curly hair springy as carpet”

“…rabbit in appearance, with a short upper lip that failed to conceal large front teeth; his coloring was sandy, and his eyes judging by the thickness of his glasses, myopic; but his dark gray suit was beautifully tailored, and the shining ice-blue tie, the watch and the shoes all looked expensive.”

“His face contrasted strangely with his taut, lean body, for it abounded in exaggerated curves: the eyes exophthalmic so that they appeared fishlike…The cheeks were round, shining apples, and the full-lipped mouth was a wide oval: his small head was almost perfectly spherical. Somé looked as though he had been carved out of soft ebony by a master hand that had grown bored with its own expertise, and started to veer towards the grotesque.”

“He was as ugly as his pictures, bull-necked and pockmarked…”

“His corned beef complexion and the purple bags under his hard eyes…”

“His dark shoulder-length hair had been dyed blonde; he was pallid and bony-faced, and the smudges around his bright turquoise eyes were dark purple.”

Female descriptions:

“Robin was, by any standards, a pretty girl; tall and curvaceous, with long strawberry-blonde hair that rippled as she walked…”

“Standing over her in a white vest decorated in chains, which just covered her pubis, was a Eurasian beauty with flat black hair cut into an asymmetric fringe.”

“…alabaster fair, with long baby-blonde hair, wearing a white semitransparent jumpsuit through which her pale, pointed nipples were clearly visible. . . .Attenuated and angular, with milk-white skin, hair almost as fair, and pale blue eyes set very far apart, she stretched out her endless legs, in platform shoes that were tied with long silver threads…”

“She was uncompromisingly plain. Her greasy skin, which was the color of burned earth, was covered in acne pustules and pits; her small eyes were deep-set, and her teeth were crooked and rather yellow. The chemically straightened hair showed four inches of black roots, then six inches of harsh, coppery wire-red. Her tight too-short jeans, her shiny gray handbag and her bright white trainers looked cheap.”

“…with her fat legs crossed…She was wearing a pink Lycra vest top under a zip-up gray hoodie, and leggings that ended inches above her gray-white ankles…her yellow hair with its inches of graying brown root, was pulled back into a dirty toweling scrunchie. The shocking-pink Lycra, tight on the rolls of fat spilling over the waistband of her leggings, rippled as she leaned forward…”

Why this bothers me: The focus on women’s bodies (whether “beautiful” or “ugly”) perpetuates the thinking that women’s appearances are of the utmost importance and that they should be categorized and either revered or rejected (“It is important to discuss whether the female body is suitable for the male gaze.”) Additionally, the only male in the entire book who is described in as much detail as the women is Somé, a gay man who is described as being feminine. The more masculine the character, the less his appearance mattered. Why is appearance so focused upon when it comes to a more feminine individual?

Overall, the book obviously wasn’t the most sexist out there. But I was disappointed and thought it could have been better in a couple of ways: a) it could have included women in some of the stereotypically male dominated roles (and vice versa) and b) it could have had less sexualization of the feminine characters and equal physical descriptions of both the male and female characters.

Have you read the book? Do you agree? Disagree?

-E

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling

  1. Great analysis! I haven’t read the book, but you made clear a lot of the subconscious objections I’ve been having to other media forms. No one outright says that women aren’t useful, but everyone sort of “knows” it in the context.

    Like

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