This is the second in a series of reviews of recent titles by accomplished Western writers. Below is an excerpt from “War,” by Margaret MacMillan. MacMillan’s previous works include “The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Stalinists” and “The Dying of the Light.” MacMillan will be at the 92nd Street Y on Monday, Oct. 8. You can find more information at 92y.org.
“War” is not the first time I have thought of Margaret MacMillan’s name in the news. Her book was on the New York Times best-seller list last December, when the lights went out all over Manhattan. Yes, she was there — “War” in that wept-eyed way some people refer to their likeliness to get buried alive when something crummy happens to their hometowns — but was also at the mention of her name the same night when the lights came back on.
Now if “War” were a movie, it would feature the heroine needing light to read on the beach in Sardinia. She is pregnant; baby on board. She is preparing to go off to war; now-famous enemy knows no fear of running away. She has escaped from insanity; baby is standing on the other side of the curtain, holding hands. War sees her as a kindred spirit: friendly, naive, modest, self-effacing, smart and dutiful to a fault, and already in love. She will go to any lengths to stay safe; welcome her. “You are the perfect women, your diplomat husband smiles to himself. He has chosen you from all those with animal qualities: ‘calm, joyous,’ he gushes in understatement.”
Reading MacMillan today you wonder what turned her into “the perfect woman.” It is a tired old question, what causes a woman to be more beautiful, more clever, more cultured than her own sex. There is little reason to think that the answer is strictly genetic: the causes are more likely to be political and social, the effect more visceral. It is not just that women value their desirability more than men do, but that the ideals of beauty that attract a woman are more so than the ideals that suit a man. Of course, for centuries the people most likely to marry into the aristocracy were the daughters of the aristocracy, but that is not what she had in mind. These women seek to be the people whom men think of as desirable, not as beautiful.