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3.9 out of 5 stars
I Don't Know How She Does It
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 16 September 2014
Allison Pearson's acclaimed novel is the story of Kate Reddy, a high-flying banker, who's also a wife and mother-of-two. Kate enjoys her job and is good at it, but is beginning to feel that it's taking over her life. And she experiences terrible guilt at how little time she spends with her small daughter and her baby son. Is it really possible for a woman to have a man's career and still be a decent wife and mother? Increasingly, Kate suspects not. When Kate begins to experience dangerously romantic feelings for an American client, and witnesses a young female colleague at work suffering from sexual harassment, she begins to realize that her life is emphatically not going in the right direction. Something needs to be done...

'I Don't Know How She Does It' is successful in that it raises some interesting questions about the plight of the working mother today - while staying at home full-time to raise children can put careers back or lead to frustration, working full time often means that your child is being largely brought up by someone else, which is far from ideal. It also (though I think Pearson could have made more of this) highlights how 'wrong' London has gone in some ways today, when the only people without family inheritances or a longterm London background who can buy even modest houses in areas relatively close to the centre like Hackney are bankers or high-flying lawyers. Pearson's descriptions of Kate's childhood and how that led her into a life of high finance were interesting, and she can be dryly funny at times - for example in her description of how women insist on doing the shopping because men will always buy the wrong brands, even if following a shopping list! And she can certainly write (I like Pearson's journalism too). In terms of style, this book is a cut above your average chicklit. Altogether this was a fairly entertaining and sometimes very involving read. However, I did feel the story did have a few major problems. Among these were:

Pearson never explained how Kate managed to reconcile her student socialism with working for a big, ultra-capitalist firm in the city. She never seemed to do any soul-searching over what she was doing, or incorrect practice in the workplace, apart from the Chris Bunce scandal.

There was very little plot to the novel as such, which meant that sections could get very repetitive. While I enjoyed the Jack Abelhammer e-mails (though wouldn't Kate have felt more guilty about Rich?) the exchanges with the best friends Candy and Debra got very stereotypically girly and silly, and the endless lists (like those in Joanna Kavenna's 'Inglorious') tipped over from being funny to boring.

I agree with the reader who said the children were very stereotyped - children are individuals just as much as adults and I didn't feel these were particularly - though later in the book Kate's relationship with her daughter became quite interesting. Also, I don't think mothers consistently find time with their children exhausting and difficult as Kate does until about the last 50 pages of the novel.

The book is somewhat anti-man. Although Rich seems to behave like a hero, working flexible hours to help raise the children and doing his fair share of chores, Kate spends a large amount of the novel complaining about him - as we're meant to be on Kate's side, there's more than a hint in the novel that the writer is condoning this. All the other men in the novel are either totally useless (like Kate's alcoholic Dad or nasty colleague Chris) or a bit pathetic on the domestic front (like Robin Cooper-Clark, who marries very soon after his wife's death largely because he can't cope with domestica). Jack Abelhammer is the only man not regularly criticized, and he's seen through a rose-coloured mist by Kate anyway, as a long distance 'e-mail lover'. More sympathy for the male characters - perhaps even a bit of the story told from their point of view - would have been good.

I was confused by the message at the end of the book - was Pearson (having criticized stay-at-home mothers as competitive child-obsessives for much of the book, then implied staying at home with the kids was the right choice) trying to tell the reader that women could never find the right work/life balance? Or that Kate liked frantic list-making and not having enough time?

All the women in the book (bar perhaps a couple of minor characters among Kate's friends) were either stay-at-home Mums or top businesswomen and I felt a wider spectrum of working motherhood could have been explored in more detail. Introducing women who were freelance editors, teachers, worked in non-corporate law etc, or making Kate's friends with non-financial jobs (such as the graphic designer and journalist) play a bigger part in the story might have given a more fully rounded picture of what it's like to be a working woman today.

I agree with other reviewers that having a heroine who's in an incredibly well-paid job, takes taxis everywhere, buys designer leather boots without thinking, can book a holiday every vacation break for her children and has a full-time cleaner and nanny might not present a totally accurate portrayal of working motherhood.

I found myself puzzled as I read on about why Kate stuck with her job if it was causing her so much guilt, and why she hadn't tried to come to some compromise after her daughter's birth - or why (since they didn't appear to even like London so much) she and Rich had stuck things out in their non-ideal situation so long. The title of the book is 'I Don't Know How She Does It' but in the end I didn't know why Kate did it - need for money, desire to satisfy competitive instincts, need to prove herself? She did seem to be putting herself through a lot of pain perhaps needlessly.

I did think this book was interesting in many ways, and entertaining. But I ended up feeling that Pearson, a very gifted writer, could have tackled her subject in a more involving way, and produced a more complex, less 'chick-lity' book. In the end, for me the book didn't fulfill its potential. Nevertheless, it kept me entertained for a weekend, and I'm glad I read it.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on 20 June 2003
It is difficult to categorise this novel. I bought it expecting some grown up, witty, entertaining chick-lit that a thirty something like myself could relate to.
Instead, I was confronted with something that lacked the insight of India Knight and the humour and pathos of Tony Parsons.
The character of Kate was initially inspiring demonstrating the difficulties of juggling a demanding career with the pressures of bringing up a family. However this soon descended to cliche and a predictable and sad affair which lacked passion and depth.
What I found most disappointing about the book was the ending. It was a harsh dollop of reality and practicality and a real slap in the face for women who believe that they can have it all. It left a nasty taste in my mouth.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 14 February 2012
You may also read my review here: [...]....

Being a working mom, I immediately thought that this book would appeal to me... but it seemed to miss the mark at just about every turn.

Kate, the main bread-winner in her family, works an obscene amount of hours, leaving the house before her kids have eaten breakfast and not getting home until after they are asleep. All day she agonizes over her work-life balance yet never seems to do anything to adjust it. Constantly pulled away from the home on business trips to other countries, Kate seems to have chosen her work-life over her home-life, to the point that she fantasizes about having an affair with an American client.

Have you ever heard the saying "You can't have your cake and eat it too"? That is how I felt about Kate... you can't expect to have kids and NOT give up some part of your life. Having obviously chosen her career over her family, it drove me crazy when Kate suddenly has an epiphany, when her kids are 6-years-old and 2-years-old, that she is throwing away her life with her children. It takes her husband leaving, her nanny falling ill and her assistant becoming the office 'joke' before she puts her life priorities straight. Immediately my thought was, "Really?!?! You wasted SIX YEARS of your relationship with your daughter and NOW you decide to be a 'Mom'"... Ugg.

Overall, this book was too unrealistic for me. It could be that my feelings on the whole work vs. family thing are a little too strong, but, as a mother, you will ALWAYS put your children first... ALWAYS!!
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 23 August 2007
Not normally being a fan of "Chick lit" I was a little put off by the cover, but I had been recommended this by a friend as I too am a working mum in the City with 2 under 5's. From the first page I instantly recognised myself - no I'm not quite as manic (or successful or rich!) as Kate, and am not attempting an e-mail affair (where on earth would I have the time??). But there were certain paragraphs, particularly when she was dealing with the issue of her relationship with her husband or her feelings of guilt about her children , and her constant need to be doing the "right thing" as a Mum, where I honestly felt the author had peered right into my head and pulled out all those conflicting emotions and pressures that seem so tangled up that that it's impossible to think about them clearly. To be fair, I probably wouldn't have related to the book half as much if I hadn't had children, but in answer to some of the more negative reviews - it really is possible to be successful and assertive in your job, but still completely insecure vis-a-vis other mums or domestic help. And yes, the plot isn't that strong, but for me the quality of the writing and the pure truth of some of the observations outweighed that. I think a few reviewers wrote that the ending was unsatisfactory, and unclear - but you know what - life is! I think Alison conveys perfectly the fact that there are no easy, or right, answers to the challenges facting modern women. We really are forging new paths in doing what we're doing, and no-one ever said that was easy. Interestingly the book has dated a little - the openly macho and sexist culture that she describes is much less overt now in the City than described here, and managers are far, far more scared than they used to be of getting sued and of the associated publicity!

I will be lending this to my husband, and giving it at Xmas to those of my friends who lead Kate Reddy type lifes. If nothing else, it can help to realise that you are not alone!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 7 May 2013
Enjoyed this book, as a mother myself sometimes felt frustrated that the main character was allowing her work to impact so much in her home life - maybe there are really people like this out there. Glad that I read the book before the film - book much better and more believable.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 7 December 2007
This was a very honestly written tells it like it is story. I felt quite emotional as I read Kate's constant juggle with work and family. The author described her feelings both rational and irrational very well and you ended up feeling profoundly sorry for them all.

There were some beautiful and poignant descriptions of those secret moments between parent and child - the `magic spot' between a baby's brow - that brought such a rush of tenderness and remembrance to me. Her portrayal of the change in a marriage brought about by having children was sooo accurate. Pearson makes truly spot on observations.

As much as I empathised with Kate I did silently cheer Richard for his actions but what disappointed me the most about this book was its conclusion, which felt rushed. Like other reviewers before me I agree that for 2/3rds of this book the story was gritty and realistic - such a shame it became a bit silly at the end, bit of a fairytale happy ever after ending that didn't really suit the tone Pearson had so cleverly set beforehand.
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16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on 5 January 2004
This book was tedious beyond belief. A tirade of feminist ranting to the reader but almost none to the characters who behaved in an apalling chauvinistic manner.
I cannot believe that a woman with a loving husband AND a nanny and a top job should have so much to moan about. Spare a thought for the single mothers trying to scratch a living with cleaning jobs.
I was really incensed by this book and it's stereotyping of male city brokers. I am a woman with several male friends who work in the city and I can assure you that they would not be my friends if they acted like nearly all the men in this whinging character's workplace.
What was the point of the book? If it was that women CAN do it all, then why did she give up her job in the end? If anything, the book negated everything that women have achieved. Get over yourself Ms Pearson.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 18 June 2009
I buy loads of books and squirrel them away. So five years on I got this one out and it was a let down. I really struggled to finish the book, it was far too long and she was repeating herself a lot. It is a poor imitation of Bridget Jones style of writing. Maybe I am too old for this type of book since I no longer have small children, I found it boring. Yes Allison Pearson can write she is witty and funny but I suspect that large parts of this book are really autobiographical and this is why the book is too long and she was really struggling to get a plot out of it. She would have done better to have written it as non-fiction, it would have been easier to read. I was hoping Kate would have a full blown affair with the sexy American as her own husband is a total bore.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 10 February 2003
Please, what is all the fuss about? I think this book is extremely overrated. Yes, it does cover an important topic and yes it (tries to) depicts the reality for many women today. However the depiction is bad. The protagonist comes across as stupid - why doesn't she just do something about her situation? If she managed to get so far at work why is she all of a sudden getting mistreated? If she is as smart as she claims how can she even bother with trying to keep up the appearence of baking her own stuff for the kids schoolmeetings? And her husband? Who the hell does he think he is and why, oh why, does she not tell him off when he leaves?
I was sorely dissapointed in this book. It was silly and at a very low level.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 15 March 2013
This book left a really bitter taste in my mouth. I was expecting a light, easy-going, funny read (something like chic-lit for mothers that you can finish in a couple of hours) but instead got a book that managed to be both an anti-feminist AND an anti-motherhood rant at the same time, disguised as a fun read.

The protagonist is Kate Reddy, City hedge fund manager and mother of two kids under-5. The book's main topic is Kate's complete lack of time, not just 'quality time' for her kids or herself but any time at all to even do basic things in her everyday life. Basically, she runs around like an (unhappy) headless chicken which was unbelievable given that a) she has a top-paying job that supposedly she loves, b) she has a great full time nanny, c) she has a husband who is able to work flexible hours and d) she has a cleaner. Despite all this, she just can't manage anything really and constantly beats herself up both about her work life and her parenthood. Every single other person in the book is a caricature: all men at Kate's city job are described as absolutely sexist and unsympathetic to a degree that doesn't ring true. Her husband is supposedly `useless' (as she's constantly portrayed as the one having to remember everything) but that too doesn't ring true to me, as surely a husband with flexi hours who has made the choice to marry such a high flying woman would usually (in real life) be much more capable of keeping things going at home. Kate's in laws are also caricaturish and anti-working mothers and even her children are not clearly portrayed and only appear to be the personification of `mummy we need to see more of you' rather than anything more complex & real to life.

This book is supposed to be laugh-out-loud funny, but personally I didn't find anything funny in this mono-dimensional depiction of a woman unable to make realistic choices that work for herself & her family, when in fact she has the brains & money to do so. Surely there could be a better, more doable balance for herself, that she could enjoy more, but somehow in this book the message is- either you become a never-see-your-children-work-all-day-and-all-night-freak or you basically throw in the towel altogether and stay at home full time. Judging from my own experience as a working mum and judging also from what I've seen over the years around me, Pearson's bottom line is just a disguised way of saying `women can't have it all'. But the reality is, nobody said anybody can `have it all' anyway, it's not about `having it all' (never was), it's more about families working together in creative ways so that both parents are happy both in their working life and their parenting life.

There's also the extremely annoying fact that the heroine is a super-wealthy City worker who supposedly represents working mothers as a whole, and their dilemmas and difficulties. The mere fact that Kate Reddy does have a choice about whether to work & how much to work makes her part of a tiny minority of working mothers. Most parents who work full time and long hours are forced to by circumstances, not by choice. Those who find themselves in such a stuck place as she does do so mostly due to financial restrictions, so that's another failure of this novel, particularly when reading it now, in the middle of a recession.

To be fair, the author does have a good eye for observation and some of her descriptions of the everyday life of a working mother do ring true (mostly some of the details she notes). But the underlying messages- working mothers are bound to be guilty / they're bound to not be seeing their kids enough / they're harming their kids / they're completely unable to work out a liveable balance- was so irritating that any good points of the book were lost to me.
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