Kate Walbert's Our Kind is pretty obviously conceived against the grain of the typical work of American fiction published these days. Instead of focusing on the young, it features a cast of mostly elderly characters. Instead of concentrating on the experiences of a single character coming to terms with contemporary reality, it presents a collection of characters united by age and experience whose stories are related mostly through the collective "we." Instead of spinning out another version of the bildungsroman, it narrates a series of loosely-structured stories about people who have long passed their prime and who spend much of their time reflecting on what has been rather than what is to come.
Whether Our Kind was actually sold to its publisher as some such kind of "high concept" (or possibly what is coming to be called "niche") book or not, unfortunately it is finally more interesting as an idea than as a realized work of fiction. Its aging characters are depicted in various overly cute or suitably somber situations, but none of these characters impress themselves on the reader's attention very deeply and few of the situations are interesting enough to sustain the individual stories as anything other than anecdotes or vignettes. One finishes the book feeling indeed that one has been given a certain kind of "information" about the generation of women around whom the book is centered, but not provided with a compelling reading experience of the sort one wants from a well-executed novel or collection of short fictions.
Our Kind is yet another "novel in stories," a form that is becoming increasingly popular among current writers (and, one presumes, readers as well). It is a form the possibilities of which have certainly not yet been fully worked out, but it can't really be said that Walbert's book does much to contribute to the ongoing exploration of those possibilities. It is too fragmented to really cohere as a novel, although it does leave a stronger (although still disappointlingly faint) impression in aggregate than in its individual parts. There isn't a firm enough narrative thread to make the book a likely candidate for adaptation as a Lifetime movie, but unfortunatly it doesn't rise much above this sort of earnest entertainment. Walbert does bring the social and cultural expectations that shaped these women's lives under some scrutiny, but not with a hard enough edge that middlebrow readers might be offended (or even challenged) by it.
The book's second half is better than the first, the stories, among them, "Sick Chicks" and "Back When They Were Children," more substantive and more capable of standing alone as short stories. Perhaps the best story is the last, "The Beginning of the End," which tells the life story of a woman named Viv, who passes up the opportunity to become a literary scholar--at a time when few women became scholars at all--in favor of the marriage and family expected of her. The story concludes with a flashback to a moment with her soon-to-be husband, Don, at their engagement party:
She moves in closer to Don and bumps the umbrella, its slick sides dripping on their shoulders as they kisss beneath the dome, already bound. And there will never be a stepping back, nor a fork in the road, nor a deferral of what had been a clear direction. You made your bed, the women say, etcetera, et cetera.
This is how Viv would describe, if asked, the beginning of the end, but the conversation never gets around to her.
The reality of opportunity lost is conveyed very painfully here, but unfortunately some readers may have given up on the book before getting to this story. Actually, I would advise that readers skip directly to "The Beginning of the End," since it really encapsulates much of what the book has to say. If you're interested in reading additional stories about the consequences of cultural expectations on women who succumb to them, you could go back and read the rest of the book by the light provided by this concluding story. You might also just settle for it.