Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Edie Falco and Eve Best on Nurse Jackie

The second season of this Showtime series continued to showcase the remarkable talents of Edie Falco and a terrific supporting cast. Writer/producers Linda Wallem and Liz Brixius (who are themselves recovering addicts, see risk putting together a story based on the trials and tribulations of a drug addict who also happens to be extremely smart and competent at her job, if not quite so effective with her family. All these episodes into the story, we still don’t know the root of Jackie’s addiction, or for that matter, her unhappiness.

Because truth be told, Jackie never really seems that unhappy. Her husband is handsome and sweet, a much more maternal figure than she is, who manages their household with aplomb and sometimes grace. Her on-again off-again affair with Eddie, the pharmacist, seems sincere, just when you think she’s only using him for his access to drugs. Which maybe she is; one of the more compelling aspects of Nurse Jackie is that we never hear Jackie’s internal monologue.

We occasionally see her look at herself in a mirror (the show’s opening credits roll over a slow-motion scene of Jackie’s pleasant relationship with her medicine cabinet), but she never seems to appraise herself honestly. Something in her gaze laughs off the implications of what she’s doing (which is usually snorting up a line of powder or pills poured from a capsule she’s broken open). Falco plays her almost mischievously, as though part of the addiction game, for Jackie, is that she can manage to maintain it without getting caught by anyone else or even admitting it to herself. All her intelligence goes toward maintaining the ruse of her competent life.

That basic lie compromises all of Jackie’s relationships, but Wallem and Brixius don’t judge the character. Part of what makes Jackie compelling is how she juggles the contradiction between the self she presents to her colleagues and friends and the secrets she hides.

This season, a few cracks started to appear in the façade of her sangfroid. On a vacation with her husband, Kevin (Dominic Fumusa), and her daughters, Jackie loses the stash she’s brought with her in a nicely camouflaging dental floss container , and quickly finds an excuse to take her family home. The conditions for returning are reasonable (and since this is a comedy series, funny)—they’ve wound up in a B&B that represents the worst of the category, with a proprietor who’s immediately in their business and a room that barely contains the four of them.

Situations always conspire to hide Jackie’s need. In this case, it’s easy for her to suggest that a stay-cation will be better for all of them, and Kevin promptly loads them up and heads home. But that scene is one of the series’ first indications that Jackie can’t do without, that the drugs she collects and enjoys are more necessary than recreational.

Other cracks in her façade appeared this season in her hysteric daughter Grace’s neurotic symptoms. The poor kid’s anxiety rides so high she’s losing her hair. Grace is painfully serious, mortally concerned with ravages to the environment and her potentially short future. Grace manifests physically and emotionally everything that Jackie hides. Jackie refuses to think about the consequences of her double life; Grace thinks too deeply about a childhood that should be much more carefree.

Jackie refuses to see danger anywhere, believing she’s somehow impervious to reality and what it might inflict. Grace can barely leave her room without being hurt or affected on some somatic or spiritual level by the pain that seems to exude from every corner of her life. Jackie can’t help Grace; she’s like an alien creature who feels everything, while Jackie resolutely feels nothing.

The wonderful Elizabeth Marvel plays the mother of Grace’s friend as an insufferably perfect supervisor of her daughter’s life. But Jackie simply refuses to be the model mother. In fact, her drug use seems in part about protesting or resisting all the conventional roles that are rightfully hers—friend, lover, wife, mother—rejecting them for a life lived behind the rose-colored glasses provided by those pretty red and white pills.

Only Eddie (Paul Schulze) has an inkling of what’s up. The series’ first season ended with him uncovering the truth of Jackie’s double-life, and this season, he insinuated himself into her family by befriending Kevin across his bar in Queens. As Kevin and Eddie become good friends, we realize how isolated and lonely Kevin is in his househusband/barkeep role. But Jackie’s lives converge in uncomfortable ways that begin to complicate the simple solid line she draws between the hospital and home.

Eddie becomes a bit snarky this season, since he knows one of Jackie's secrets and uses it to exercise power over her. The situation lets the writers show Jackie sweating. She’s furious with Eddie for infiltrating her life, but quickly accommodates to the power he holds and changes her tactics. She keeps Eddie in line by baiting him with the possibility of returning to their relationship, although he retains the upper hand, since Kevin has come to like and trust him as his friend.

Jackie’s relationship with Dr. O’Hara (Eve Best) also takes a hit this season, becoming more complex and layered as the writers flesh out Best's character. Their friendship has always been odd—would a wealthy doctor really be BFFs with a nurse from Queens? Would they really lunch in fancy restaurants, and become so close that O’Hara would want to pay for Jackie’s kids’ education?

The plot point stretches believability, and yet as played by Falco and Best, the women’s compatibility comes from their wry, even mordant sense of their absurd situations, if not the sum of their lives. Their respect for one another stems from how good they are at what they do, and from being women in a professional environment that privileges men.

Anna Deavere Smith, as Gloria Akalitus, was given a larger role this season, which allowed her character, too, to illustrate women’s plight in a male-dominated world. While Akalitus still carries much of the show’s comedy, patrolling her ER like a bomb-sniffing dog, looking for rule infractions and inappropriate behavior along with cost-cutting possibilities, this season clarified that Gloria also has a real heart. She and Jackie understood one another on a deeper level, and Gloria learned how to manage the huge and unwieldy ego that is Dr. Cooper (“Coop,” wonderfully played by Peter Facinelli).

One of Nurse Jackie’s central pleasures is the buffoonery of its leading male character. Utterly self-centered and entirely arrogant, Coop expects the staff to kow-tow to his position just because he’s male and a doctor, surrounded by nurses who are mostly women and gay men. Enamored of his own good looks, Coop pays to extend the ad campaign that featured him as the face of All Saints Hospital, unable to tolerate not seeing himself on billboards and bus shelters around the city.

In the second season’s finale, Coop beds the free-spirited girlfriend of the recovering addict male nurse, Sam (Arjun Gupta), prompting the poor guy to fall off the wagon and to land his fist on Coop’s nose. Crushed that his face has been compromised, Coop goes crying to O’Hara and Jackie, while Sam gets completely bombed, forcing Jackie to reveal that she knows all the tricks for quickly returning someone to sobriety.

The writers temper Coop’s insufferable ego-centricism by making his character as full of contradictions as Jackie’s. He’s the child of two mothers, raised by lesbians yet still flaunting his male privilege and cluelessness about what it means to be “othered.” Occasionally, he uses his provenance to try to establish liberal credentials, but it never quite sticks, as Coop has too much fun surfing through life on the wave of his whiteness and his maleness.

His absurd and occasional attempts to make common cause are only excuses for comedy. For example, when Harvey Fierstein guest stars as a gay man (no surprise) whose partner is dying, Coop makes sure to let him know that his mothers are lesbians. That Fierstein and most other characters respond with indifference is a neat commentary on how an unconventional background no long automatically makes you empathetic or even interesting.

Coop’s tic—when he’s stressed, he grabs women’s breasts and won’t let go—is hysterical in both senses of the word. It provides terrific opportunities for his acting partners (especially Merritt Wever, as apprenticing nurse Zoey) to react comically and it’s a very funny psychological manifestation of his inability to crawl out of the womb. Even though Coop’s mothers made a guest appearance in Season One, we learn little else about Coop’s life outside of All Saints.

We really don’t know anyone’s back-story on Nurse Jackie. The appearance this season of O’Hara’s sometimes girlfriend—a television journalist played by the beautiful, perky Julia Ormond—revealed that she’s bisexual. In one episode over that story arc, O’Hara and Sam have a quickie in the hospital chapel. As their breathing starts getting hot and heavy, Sam admits he has a girlfriend and O’Hara retorts, “So do I.”

Although her relationship with the girl reporter doesn’t work out, O’Hara’s lesbian proclivities add nuance and texture to a character who’s already an unusual take on what it means to be a woman doctor. Proudly rich, decked out in catch-me-fuck-me heels and designer clothing under her white lab coat, O’Hara is supremely competent and unruffled.

Yet all we know about her outside of her professional life is that she won’t tolerate a girlfriend who cheats and that money is no object. When she and Jackie share a moment, after it’s clear O’Hara’s affair has ended, Jackie admits that she likes being O’Hara’s “girl.” O’Hara confesses that Jackie is the only reason she looks forward to coming to work every day. Odd couple though they might be, Jackie and the doctor are in many ways the show’s central pair, the Meredith and McDreamy of All Saints.

Nurse Jackie, thankfully, isn’t Grey’s Anatomy. While on Grey’s, the staff’s work is a thinly veiled excuse for muddling in their personal melodramas, Nurse Jackie is more interested in how our work becomes our lives. Although Nurse Jackie’s writers say their show is really about addiction, it’s also about how our work is so central, it’s easy to split off professional personae from domestic selves.

Jackie’s best self patrols the floor of All Saints, where she delights in bending rules and advocating for people who have little power over controlling institutions. She might be unethical, but her choices are always for the good, and always make the right kind of difference.

That her personal life is morally suspect casts a pallor on her character’s righteousness, but it’s also realistic and somehow true. No one is perfect. Without her flaws, Jackie would seem a larger-than-life crusader. Instead, she fights the good fight with one hand and puts dope up her nose with the other. Despite the hospital’s name, no one is a saint—or perhaps, on the contrary, we all are, warts and all.

The Feminist Spectator

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Heidi Chronicles at Princeton

Rebecca Foresman in Princeton Summer Theater's The Heidi Chronicles

Wendy Wasserstein’s 1989 Pulitzer Prize-winning play has become a history piece, representing her view of the progress of American feminism from its beginnings in the late 60s to its solidification and—by her lights—waning in the mid- to late-1980s. Seeing the play through a 2010 vantage point makes me feel more generous toward Wasserstein than I did when I saw the 1989 Broadway production, which enraged me with what I considered its dismissal not only of feminist accomplishments but of any kind of vital feminist future.

The Princeton Summer Theater production of The Heidi Chronicles, directed by R.N. Sandberg and ably performed by a company of mostly graduated Princeton seniors, does an excellent job of tracking the play’s contemporary relevance. The set’s stenciled outlines of dates and places keeps the spectator abreast of the passing of time and social mores, from the 1962 high school dance at which Heidi meets Peter, who eventually becomes her best (gay) male friend, to the 1989 New York loft where Heidi ends her journey with her adopted Panamanian baby. In this production, smart acting and complex characterizations keep Heidi’s choices relevant, perhaps especially for young women embarking on their own journeys, replete with complications similar to those Wasserstein’s heroine faces.

Rebecca Foresman plays Heidi Holland as first and foremost a smart, even opinionated woman, who clearly thinks about each choice she makes throughout the play. More often, Heidi is played as a cipher, a woman buffeted by history instead of choosing her way through it. Director Sandberg and Foresman instead put Heidi in the center of the play’s action. For instance, in the first act’s Ann Arbor consciousness-raising scene, in which Heidi is typically placed—awkward, uncomfortable, and wary—outside the earnest circle of women, this production puts Heidi among the others, watching with insight and intelligence. When she finally resolves to share her own experience, Foresman makes that choice with force and conviction, presenting Heidi as a clear and willing participant in shaping feminist understandings of women’s lives.

That the scene still caricatures 1970s CR groups indicates the tight construction of Wasserstein’s text. But the Princeton actors—including Veronica Siverd as a much warmer and fuzzier lesbian physicist Fran, Olivia Stoker as a very thoughtful and less bubble-headed Becky, Heather Mays as the ever-embracing hopeful housewife Jill, and Dominique Salerno as the mercurial, shape-shifting Susan—push against its stereotypes to make the scene a moving statement of feminist solidarity, something still rarely seen on American stages.

In fact, feminist energy, warmth, and companionship thread through this production, and take the sting out of Heidi’s Miss Crane’s school speech in the second act, which seems to blame other women for leaving her feeling stranded. Even in the baby shower scene, in which all the women but Heidi and Susan seem on their way to pregnancies, the women end their moment together on the downstage apron in a way that mirrors the solidarity of the 1970s CR meeting.

I was struck, in this production, that the play can offer these affirming representations of women supporting one another through history. Watching Siverd, Mays, and Stoker play multiple women characters underlined that history might change around them, and their stories might change along with the choices they make, but the women’s very presence and connection to one another stays constant and somehow true. Their multiple-casting (and Daniel Rattner's nice turn as various subsidiary men) grounds Heidi's picaresque tale.

Salerno’s portrayal of Susan makes the solidarity coloring each of the play’s vignettes especially poignant. Susan is Heidi’s foil, the modern feminist who changes with the times, adopting each passing trend with verve and energy but never with continuing commitment. Susan transforms herself from an eager and aggressive heterosexual, rolling up her skirt at the school dance to seduce the guy who can twist and smoke at the same time, to the feminist shepherdess on an all-women’s dude ranch in Montana, to an MBA-bearing Hollywood television producer who creates a show about three women in a loft in Houston that becomes wildly popular.

That Susan finally declares she’s “not political anymore,” and that she doesn’t care how many people she’s been still makes me wince. But despite Susan’s opportunistic embrace of the zeitgeist, Salerno plays her as genuinely warm and always, in her way, supportive of her BFF Heidi. Salerno as Susan puts her arms around Heidi’s shoulders, touching her and other characters with honest physical warmth that takes the sting out of what Wasserstein writes as Susan’s ambitious excess. This is the first production I’ve seen in which Susan is likeable, and in which her choices make real sense.

Susan is the play’s alpha female. Stoker plays the younger Denise with casual bite; her tossed off “I did women’s studies at Brown” comment in the baby shower scene indicates the entrenchment and de-fanging of feminism in the academy and introduces the social presumptions of third wave feminism. In this production, Heidi is the one who “keeps the faith” (the slogan proudly announced up-center, in the middle of the set, throughout the production). Heidi’s feminist humanism grounds her and her choices; as played by Foresman, she actually seems like a smart, thoughtful woman with staunch beliefs.

Foresman gives her an innate and persistent intelligence that renders her a worthy guide through her own life’s story. For example, I’ve never seen a production of the Chronicles in which Heidi is convincing as an art historian. Here, the feminist art history lectures that begin each act are actually interesting and informative in Foresman’s authoritative delivery, and establish Heidi as a professor and scholar with something to say about art, rather than a woman who apologizes for and undercuts her own intellect. Of course, that very intelligence makes her bitter Miss Crane’s school speech a bit unbelievable; how could a woman as smart and accomplished as Heidi truly measure herself as “worthless” against women in the locker room at her gym who she describes as striving and frankly silly?

Still, Foreman’s layered and nuanced portrayal made me want to continue following Heidi’s journey, and made the second act’s scenes more complicated and compelling. Heidi’s anger at how Peter (Tyler Weaks) and the redoubtable Scoop (Shawn Fennell) talk over her in the “Hello, New York” television segment is palpable. Her position between the two men is sharply drawn in this production. Fennell plays Scoop as wily but charismatic, a man who recognizes Heidi’s potential and knows he can’t live with a woman as competent as himself. Weaks plays Peter as less campy and sarcastic than actors sometimes portray him, giving him a soft, sweet aspect that complements well with Foresman’s sharp, professional focus.

In one of the play’s most objectionable scenes, Heidi visits Peter’s pediatric unit at the hospital to donate a box of books and albums and to tell him she’s leaving New York to teach in Minnesota. Typically, Peter’s fury at her departure trumps Heidi’s choice to pursue her career. In this production, I was still irritated that Wasserstein ennobles gay men’s struggle with HIV/AIDS over women’s fight for equality—why should they be rendered competing activist movements? But in Foresman’s portrayal, Heidi doesn’t apologize for her choices, even though she decides to stay. The scene paints Peter and Heidi as one another’s relations, underlining that it’s possible to create kinship systems outside of the nuclear family, heterosexual norm.

Heidi’s final encounter with Scoop—the voluble Jewish magazine editor she loves with deep ambivalence and finally, a healthy, wry distance—isn’t wistful in this production. Foresman and Sandberg clarify that Heidi likes the choice she’s made to favor her work; her adopted baby textures, rather than centers, her life. The production’s final image shows Heidi sitting in a rocking chair, literally balancing her baby and her book manuscript in her lap, holding her pen in her mouth as she rocks the child and reads her galleys. This picture of a feminist life as a happy balancing act tempers what too often becomes a romantic concluding image of a woman finally fulfilled by adopting a child.

Watching this production of The Heidi Chronicles, I was reminded how few popular mainstream plays exist about feminism. Even so, I wondered, as I watched, whether Heidi is a play about feminism, a feminist play, or a play that tells the story of a generation through one woman’s experience. Regardless, I’m delighted that the Princeton Summer Theater gives us the opportunity to think along with this smart, fun production, even as we enjoy Wasserstein’s sharply funny portrait of the woman she creates as our beguiling guide through our recent, collective past.

The Feminist Spectator

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I’m late to the bandwagon of Stieg Larrson, but I can see why so many people are reading this translated Swedish thriller trilogy. I just finished the first novel, I’m 50 pages into The Girl Who Played with Fire, the second, and I’ve been promised a lend on the third.

Part of the appeal is that Larrson respects his reader’s intelligence and creates characters that are intellectually, as well as politically and sexually, motivated. Mikael Blomkvist, the crusading journalist and editor of a scrappy investigative magazine called Millennium, is one of genre fiction’s more appealing heroes, in part because his masculinity is surprisingly unconventional. I usually read mysteries or thrillers with women gumshoes or protagonists, because I find the hardboiled masculine variety predictable and sometimes offensive.

But Blomkvist is compromised from the start of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, as he’s been indicted and sentenced to prison for libeling a powerful industrialist named Wennerstrom. When we first meet him, then, he’s already flawed, although his journey follows the archetypal trajectory of the wronged hero who’s vindicated after he survives a series of trials that prove his righteousness. I’m not spoiling anything with this description—this is one of the rules of the genre, and watching it play out with so many relatively progressive (politically) twists is what makes this kind of novel so pleasurable and compelling.

Blomkvist restores himself to favor in the course of a labyrinthine plot that takes him north of Stockholm to a small, frozen island in the Norrland where he’s persuaded to spend a year in the employ of another powerful corporate mogul, the worthy Henrik Vanger. In his declining years, the melancholy elderly man is desperate to solve the mystery of his niece Harriet’s disappearance from the island 40-odd years earlier.

Hedeby Island’s population teems with Vangers, a family dynasty with plenty of skeletons rattling in terribly sordid closets. Because Henrik Vanger doesn’t want his family to know that he’s hired Blomkvist to continue investigating the unsolved mystery of what most presume is Harriet’s murder (though her body was never found), Henrik assigns Blomkvist to write the older man’s biography as a cover. As the shrewd journalist combs through the family patriarch’s extensive archive of materials on Harriet’s disappearance, Blomkvist pieces together a story about perversion and corruption that Larrson makes both plausible and harrowing.

Much of the book describes Blomkvist poring over evidence and interviewing likely suspects or people whose lives in one way or another touched Harriet’s before she disappeared in 1966. Research and interviews are staple tools of the mystery/thriller genre, but Blomkvist’s character is set off by the fact that his stock in trade is journalism, rather than police or detective work, which gives him a slightly different cast from the genre’s typical heroes. Blomkvist’s motives start as personal; Vanger promises him that if he gets to the bottom of Harriet’s disappearance, he has information about Blomkvist’s nemesis, Wennerstrom, which will prove Blomkvist’s innocence.

But before that happens, Blomkvist actually does his time in jail, even if it seems a very cushy, decidedly white collar stint in the slammer, during which Blomkvist continues his investigation for Vanger examining files and photographs in between his mandatory work assignments and exercise.

And before he’s given the carrot Vanger promises, Blomkvist finds himself committing to his investigation for more personal reasons. He begins a casual affair with another one of Vanger’s nieces, Cecilia, whose father is a Nazi sympathizer, along with at least one of his other brothers. Cecilia proves one of the book’s several interesting women characters, and one of the three with whom Blomkvist has sex through the story.

Cecilia is in her mid-50s (about 10 years older than Blomkvist), long divorced, admits that she hasn’t had sex in some time, and chooses to seduce Blomkvist within minutes of meeting him. But because she’s wary of emotional involvement, and because sex seems to send her into frenzies completely incompatible with her more reserved daily emotional exterior, she keeps reeling him in only to cut bait and run.

The “man on a yo-yo” theme is typical of Blomkvist’s relationships with the women in Dragon Tattoo, a refreshing change for a genre in which the heroes are more typically men who phone in their relationships with women, seeking bed companions on their own terms and leaving the women to wait for their call. Larsson’s hero rarely passes up a sexual opportunity, but I don’t believe he ever actually initiates one.

Blomkvist’s long-term occasional sexual companion is also his smart, competent business partner, Erika Berger, a woman he’s known since they were both young journalists. Berger is married to another man. Gregor, Erika’s husband, knows all about her relationship with Blomkvist—the arrangement seems to suit everyone just fine. Erika and Blomkvist truly love one another, and their work together on Millennium, the political muck-raking magazine they own and co-edit, sets off intellectual and political sparks that fuels their sexual commitment.

That they aren’t married to one another, however, is a nice touch; that no one minds their unusual arrangement is also kind of cool. Erika walks in on Blomkvist with other women several times throughout the story, and while she’s always embarrassed at what she’s interrupted, she’s never jealous or angry. As usual, in Dragon Tattoo, the women in his life control the enactment of Blomkvist’s desire. And none of them are eager to haul him down the aisle.

To call his third sexual partner, the series co-anchor Lizbeth Salander, Blomkvist’s side-kick would diminish her importance to the story and its action and fail to describe her relevance and appeal. The genre’s conventions typically require one hero or heroine who, although he or she might frequent likely people for support or companionship, typically goes it alone to solve the mystery and unmask the murderer. In Dragon Tattoo, Larsson writes Blomkvist and Salander as an odd-couple who complement one another and contribute equally to the resolution of the plot—in fact, they simultaneously but separately realize the villain’s identity.

The two don’t actually team up until halfway into the story, although Larsson keeps their activities on parallel tracks until they intersect. Salander, a brilliant computer hacker, works freelance for a security firm and is assigned to background-check Blomkvist by Henrik Vanger’s lawyer before the old man hires him to find Harriet. In the course of investigating the journalist, Salander comes to her own conclusions about the Wennerstrom affair, which prove relevant as the story unfolds.

But it’s only when Blomkvist realizes he’s been investigated and reads her report that he seeks Salander out and proposes that she work with him. And it’s only because her work is so extensive and impressive—even if she’s uncovered things about him that he knows she obtained by illegally hacking into his computer—that he pursues her as a work partner. Their relationship, in other words, is professional and mutually admiring; they’re both whip smart, driven, curious, and skilled.

Salander is one of the most compelling, unusual characters I’ve come across in genre fiction. She’s a young woman with her own mysterious back-story, one that Larsson hasn’t fully revealed by the end of Dragon Tattoo. She’s a ward of the state, legally determined incompetent to govern her own affairs, even though she’s by now twenty-five-years-old. Her relationship with her new guardian, a slimy lawyer named Bjurman, taps into old traumas, as he tries to manipulate her and wield his state-derived power over her ugly in ways she can’t accommodate. How Salander gets her revenge is one of the book’s most satisfying—and surprisingly feminist—chapters.

In fact, to complement Blomkvist’s equitable way with women, the unusual Salander is the book’s feminist heroine. She’s young and troubled, but she’s enormously smart and wily. Her photographic memory and quick curiosity makes her a gifted investigator, but her social awkwardness, which clearly stems from her dark personal history, keeps her an iconoclastic loner.

She lives in a messy hovel, dependent on Bjurman to dole out her finances; she chooses her sexual partners based on fleeting desires for physical connection, with little regard for emotional commitment, which she assiduously avoids; she reveals nothing of her inner life (Larsson consistently describes her eyes and demeanor as “expressionless”); and she’s particularly wary of men, even as she chooses them (as well as the occasional woman) as sexual partners.

When she and Blomkvist become lovers, it’s Salander who seduces him (in a typical mystery with a male hero, this would inevitably be vice versa). And although he protests that co-workers shouldn’t sleep together, she points out that he and Berger have an on-going affair that doesn’t seem to hamper their professional relationship. But once Blomkvist and Salander have sex, and even though they live together in the small cottage Vanger provides for their work on Hedeby Island, they don’t adopt the conventional routines of coupledom.

She keeps her own counsel, and bristles when Blomkvist tries to draw her out about her past (and even when he compliments her on her brilliance, which she thinks makes her a freak). She retains her right to be enigmatic and antisocial, often refusing to answer Blomkvist’s questions and leaving town without a word, avoiding her cell phone to prevent being tracked down. Salander is a cipher, even to the reader—through the first novel, we never find out the root of her exceedingly guarded relationship to her own life.

That mystery makes her exceptionally compelling, alongside her prodigious intelligence and commanding savvy. She dons leather chaps to ride her motorbike; she drinks heavily when appropriate, and smokes cigarettes freely; she’s hedonistic in unusual, fascinating ways. Salander understands, as the evidence unfolds, that the seamy underside of the Vanger empire is built on a profound hatred of women—she diagnoses and explicitly names misogyny in ways rarely seen in a genre that’s famous for building its plots on the backs of exploited women.

But at the same time, for reasons Larsson doesn’t fully describe, she’s deemed “incompetent” by the state, has been institutionalized for too much of her life, and is now controlled by a corrupt guardian who exercises more power over her affairs than any theoretically free person should be forced to withstand. Salander’s contradictions and the character’s ambiguities propel the narrative as much as the central plot.

I’ll avoid spoilers here, but suffice it to say that many of the book’s crises and resolutions are among the best I’ve read in the genre, and twist the typical gender politics in feminist ways. Watch for Lizbeth’s revenge over Bjurman, which enacts a kind of feminist fantasy; watch for the scene in which the villain is revealed and entraps one of the two protagonists, forcing the other to the rescue; and watch for continuing twists and turns, as one portion of the mystery is solved only to propel you into another, as each of the plot's strands click together by the end. Even the resolution provides a kind of feminist triumph, with smart, emotionally cool new characters appearing to vindicate the proceedings.

I’ll risk one spoiler to lodge my only complaint: That Lisbeth Salander would find herself in love with Blomkvist by the book’s end seems completely out of character. Without understanding her life story, Larsson doesn’t give us enough reasons to believe that she’d allow herself the luxury of such emotion, even though he presents her feelings as a surprise even to herself. Although now that I’ve started the second book, it seems her realization could have been a plot device to set in motion The Girl Who Played with Fire, at the end of Dragon Tattoo, her however uncomfortable admission of love cheapens a relationship in which Salander has been refreshingly unsentimental and in control.

That said, I’m hooked enough to continue into The Girl Who Played with Fire, and to give Larsson the benefit of the doubt.

A Swedish film version of the first book has been released, which I’m eager to see, and press speculation circulates about casting for the English-language film. I’ve heard Natalie Portman and Kristen Stewart both mentioned for the Salander role, among other young actors. Stewart’s more sinewy frame and her sulking, emotionally guarded sexuality makes her my pick for the role.

In another world, Salander would be played by Shane, from The L Word. I don’t think Kate Moenning, the actor who played the hard-living, non-monogamous lesbian hair stylist character, is up to the task, but the look would certainly work.

A girl can dream. But in the meantime, I’m going to burrow back into The Girl Who Played with Fire.

The Feminist Spectator