Suite for Barbara Loden, by Nathalie Léger (A Book Review)

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I read Nathalie Léger‘s Suite for Barbara Loden, and now I’m going to rant about it.

I’m not going to lie —  I didn’t even plan on reading it in the beginning.

It was assigned for class, but I missed the screening of Wanda, the movie this reading is based on. I learned about the death of a former teammate just a few minutes before we were supposed to start the film, and unfortunately had to excuse myself. It also just so happens I was scheduled to take a quick weekend trip on the day of the book discussion a week later.

Basically, I didn’t have to read it, but I did.

You see, my friend sold me on it. She loved Suite for Barbara Loden so much she posted the book on her Instagram story, and did her class presentation on it through a Twitter rant I adored even before cracking open the book myself.

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Let’s just say I’m so grateful I packed my copy of Suite for Barbara Loden in my suitcase that weekend. On the return journey, after polishing off my previous read, I finally got around to starting it, and my goodness…

It was extraordinary.

For starters, I’ll admit the following:

1. I still haven’t seen Wanda, and

2. It took me ages to finish Suite for Barbara Loden since my ADHD makes it tricky for me to concentrate on one book for long. This, however, has improved significantly during the quarantine.

Still, even though it took me a while to buckle down and finish Suite for Barbara Loden after returning from the airport that afternoon, I finally did and, just as I expected from the start, it was intriguing, insightful, informative, well-observed, and profoundly well-written. This is the kind of book that probably shouldn’t have been interesting, but somehow it was.

It captured me from the get-go, and didn’t release me until the very end.

I didn’t regret a moment of it.

Now, believe me when I say my preceding rodeo with a movie/bibliomemoir combination did not go nearly as well as reading Suite for Barbara Loden did. It involved a renowned Andrei Tarkovsky film, Stalker, and a corresponding bibliomemoir by Geoff Dyer, titled Zona.

Watching Stalker was the kind of grueling experience that makes you want to call your mom and tell her you love her, even if you already did earlier that day. I remember I did exactly this, and then went on a three hour jog just to remind myself what sunlight and warmth felt like.

This film seriously had to be one of the most excruciating artistic experiences in my life; I actually believe Andrei Tarkovsky knew this when he made Stalker and did it anyway, just to see what would happen when people watched it.

Clearly, the sadists walk among us.

Okay, okay. I’m just kidding, but…

Film is, without a doubt, one of those artistic areas I definitely don’t gel with, so I am not a fancy enough film critic to enjoy a cinematic experience like Stalker. Maybe you have to be to enjoy it and understand why it’s so celebrated when all it does is create misery.

I honestly don’t know.

Regardless, I’d say the best thing about Dyer’s Zona is the simple fact that it isn’t the actual film itself. This made it ever-so-slightly less painful than the movie, but still made me want to call my mother and go for a barely shorter jog than the one I required after seeing Stalker for the first (and hopefully last) time.

As I said before, I am not a film person in the slightest, but even my peers who are seem to have struggled with the horrible experience that is being made to sit through Stalker.

Things really felt like they couldn’t get any worse at that point, but then we had to read Zona, which essentially reiterated the film with the author’s own, equally drawn-out, nearly identical, and painfully mundane perspective.


0/10 would recommend Stalker or Zona.

With this knowledge, imagine my relief when I discovered Suite for Barbara Loden is absolutely nothing like Zona.

Rather, it was wonderful.

It was one-of-a-kind in the general sense, and unique in that it drew from the film without becoming it. It was supplemental, and felt less like an “after” than a “beside,” therefore embodying one of the primary aspects of bibliomemoir.

Léger did an eloquent job of discussing the intersection of the beautiful, seemingly happy woman and the ugliness and darkness of one’s own psyche. Suite for Barbara Loden, much like Wanda (or so I hear), did a phenomenal job of describing how women are expected to exist in this world —  body first, mind second (if even) —  and how that leaves so many of us feeling empty, wandering to the ends of the Earth in search of a sense of meaning we may never actually find. Some of us even find that we are these sad, smiling creatures, controlled by the wiles of misogyny. Moreover, we are all in desperate need of a break, if not an eternity, from living in a man’s world.

You see, unlike Zona, Suite for Barbara Loden was not simply another book written by another man writing about the work of yet another man; it was a woman using the work of another woman to empathize with her and her character. Léger saw Barbara Loden in a way no one really cared to when she was still alive. She shone a light over the experiences, mind, and heart of this remarkable human being who deserved better than she got.

Léger did Barbara Loden justice.

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So yes, it’s true that I haven’t seen Wanda yet.

I’ll definitely take the time to track it down and watch it eventually (as I should), but the point here is that I don’t actually have to.

The reason Suite for Barbara Loden felt complete on its own is because it is complete on its own. The only part of the Wanda experience it didn’t feed for me was the satisfaction of seeing the film with my own two eyes, which is a craving far beyond its responsibility as a bibliomemoir anyway.

Léger didn’t just do her job when she wrote Suite for Barbara Loden; she went above and beyond by fusing her glorious grasp of language, art, womanhood, history, and patriarchal dynamics with her passion for discovery and justice.

Suite for Barbara Loden stands alone and, in that, it establishes itself as an exquisite work of literature that I believe is absolutely worth exploring.

10/10 would recommend.

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