Existentialism between the Covers


A Girl’s Guide to Modern European Philosophy

Charlotte Greig, Other Press, 2009


Susannah is a 20-year-old philosophy student at University of Sussex sometime in the 1970s—at that very moment in history when a first generation of young women could enjoy the sexual freedom afforded by the pill and safe abortion, but before those things became mundane enough to be taken for granted. In other words, the freedom, decision, and responsibility involved were still tangible, and sure enough, Susie finds herself struggling to choose between sexual partners, sexual identities, and eventually, over whether to abort the baby she discovers herself to be carrying (not knowing to which of two men it belongs).


As the title promises, the book also serves as an introduction to European philosophy, specifically to the existentialism of Friedrich Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard and Martin Heidegger. Excerpts of their writings underscore and give resonance to the decision-begging predicament in which Susie finds herself. The book’s message, ultimately, is that no matter how tempted we may be to look to the world and to those around us for guidance, our decisions are fundamentally—even frighteningly—our own. A Girl’s Guide to Modern European Philosophy is successful enough in communicating this that it is not apparent what Susie will do, nor what she ought to do, nor even, one realizes, what one would do in her place.


If anything, Charlotte Greig’s novel is a bit light in philosophical content, especially considering the title and the fact that, notwithstanding all of the sexual dynamics, philosophy emerges as Susannah's only real love. The book merely skims the surface of the existentialist theories that it explores, as though afraid the reader either won't be interested or won't understand them. This also fits with the publisher’s decision to market it as “chick lit,” judging by the cover. A Girl’s Guide is indeed eminently readable, funny, and engaging (and steamy!), but with a far more subtle story than, say, the similarly-jacketed Good in Bed (Washington Square Press, 2002) by Jennifer Weiner. Grieg’s characters are not caricatures, and the relationships are not romanticized; things happen and the significance of them is ruminated upon, resulting sometimes in profound revelations but never in any ultimate conclusions.  


And the ending—I won't spoil it—strikes the perfect note: one of only two possible outcomes (she has an abortion or she does not), and yet not in the least bit predictable. An ending for which we have been kept in complete and utter suspense, and yet not a grand resolution. The story refuses triteness or finality just as much as these are absent in real life.