A Sheltered Woman tells the story of Auntie Mei, a Chinese immigrant who does her living as a nanny to both newborn babies and breastfeeding mommies. Her resume boasts of a 130-something strong entries. She takes care of the pair for no longer than a month until Chanel, a stubborn young mother neglected by her husband, unhinges the practices and principles of Auntie Mei by neglecting the baby and leaving all motherly responsibilities to the hired nanny.
Auntie Mei’s life is a routine. She immediately leaves her current employer as soon as the one-month allocation is up and moves on to the next. Because of both her skills and reputation, she is rarely left unemployed. This constant caring for new babies makes her not care for them anymore. To her, these babies are just new items that she can list in her small notebook, bought from a yard sale, that she religiously updates for her reference.
This routine must have hardened something within Auntie Mei, therefore giving the story a caustic and cynical tone. There are small moments of humor though, but these are spare and fleeting. This gives us the feeling that Auntie Mei is either someone not to mess with or someone who shelters a difficult past.
The title is misleading. Rather, it is ambiguous. It is common to think that a sheltered woman is one who has lived a life protected from the ugliness of the world. This is not the case with Auntie Mei. She is sheltered, yes, but in a different sense. She is a woman who severs emotional attachments even before the strands are even spun. She shelters herself from these in order not to hurt both others and herself.
The babies—a hundred and thirty-one of them, and their parents, trusting yet vigilant—had protected Auntie Mei from herself. But who was going to protect her now? Not this baby, who was as defenseless as the others, yet she must protect him. From whom, though: his parents, who had no place for him in their hearts, or Auntie Mei, who had begun to imagine his life beyond the one month allocated to her?
Why she, after more than a hundred babies, begins to imagine a life with Chanel’s baby is something worth chewing. She was raised by her unconventional grandmother and mother, who both abandoned the men in their families and lived among themselves. Upon their deaths, she’s left with nothing. Is her childhood to be blamed for her unwieldy disposition? Did it alienate her from the world of other people? Will she be able to anchor herself on something? Will she continue to drift from employer to employer?
In a New Yorker interview, Li reveals that Auntie Mei’s future is clear to her, offering us the consequences that could follow in two possible scenarios. It’s basically a toss between harm and help, but again, I ask these: what harm can Auntie Mei afflict? What help do Chanel and her baby need, exactly?
This makes me feel that emotional attachments are harmful especially in the context of Auntie Mei’s life, and if that’s the case, would it be better to unharmed yet unattached?
Published in: The New Yorker: March 10, 2014 issue
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars