Study Guide

Hilma Wolitzer

Hilma Wolitzer Essay - Critical Essays

Wolitzer, Hilma

Introduction

Hilma Wolitzer 1930–

American novelist for adults and young adults.

Wolitzer's strength rests in her ability to show the extraordinary in the lives of ordinary people. Her heroines, whether adolescent or adult, all tend toward introspection, and all seek independence while hoping not to sacrifice love. The protagonist of her first novel, Ending, is a young suburban homemaker whose 32-year-old husband is dying of bone cancer; the force and immediacy of Wolitzer's account has caused some critics to wonder if the story were autobiographical.

Introducing Shirley Braverman, Wolitzer's first novel for young adults, takes place in Brooklyn during World War II and seems to depend on the author's own memories of adolescence. Ironically, this novel has been faulted for lacking the psychological depth and credibility of her other works. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68.)

Martin Levin

There is not much to be said for dying. There might be something to be said about it—which is the author's brave endeavor in this log of a death watch. Mainly [Ending] is about what it feels like for a young wife to wait for a young husband (Jay) to die of a terminal sickness. Some of Sandy Kaufman's experiences strike a universal note…. A few of Sandy's reactions are rather special. (pp. 27-8)

The moments that glow in the book devolve from Jay's last desperate acts of will…. But I sometimes wonder whether the air crews I knew in the Ninth Air Force didn't have the right approach to mortality. They never talked about it. (p. 28)

Martin Levin, "Fiction: 'Ending'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 4, 1974, pp. 27-8.

Doris Grumbach

So successful (and Lord, so painful!) is the progress of this sparingly written book [Ending] … that I forgot it was fiction, and began to think of it as Mrs. Wolitzer's own story, which it is not, so far as I know. It is a book well worth your time, if you can bring yourself to still another description of the horrors of dying by cancer, but more especially if you admire good writing.

Doris Grumbach, "On Dying and Other Matters," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 171, Nos. 6 & 7, August 10 & 17, 1974, pp. 32-3.

R. Z. Sheppard

Ending could easily have been a dreadful book. Instead, it is an extraordinarily good one. Each of its 40 short chapters contains a quiet surprise or nuance that is all the more effective because it springs from the most familiar sources…. [Wolitzer] practices realism at its best. Her novel is not a direct imprint of close personal experience. It is an imaginative act that contemplates the world without the lachrymose bitterness that made an anxious Hemingway demean life by calling death an old whore. (p. 78)

R. Z. Sheppard, "'Liebestod' in Rego Park," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc. 1974), Vol. 104, No. 9, August 26, 1974, pp. 76-8.

Margaret Ferrari

What makes [Ending] first-rate is that Wolitzer captures the conditions of the spirit rather perfectly herself, with an amazing intensity and richness. And in the rash of new books on dying, fiction and nonfiction, Ending is a distinguished entry.

Sandy and Jay Kaufman are a young couple (30 and 32—with two boys under five) going through the agony, together, of Jay's death from bone cancer. There is that much obvious plot comparison with Love Story, but the similarity ends there…. [Eric] Segal's hero dealt with his wife's death only as a learning experience for himself, Sandy Kaufman is as deeply involved in her husband's feelings as in her own….

Even though the action centers around Jay's dying, the novel is really Sandy's. It records her efforts to deal in a continually alive way with her dying husband and the fact of his death. She deliberately chooses to live in the present with him, and there is nobility, rather than denial, in her refusal to think of what she'll do after he dies, until it happens….

Through unobtrusive flashbacks, the reader sees the quirky, happy, angry and frustrating moments in their relationship…. (p. 157)

But through it all, what keeps such a potentially tear-jerking novel from descending into bathos is the couple's pervasive sense of humor. Despite their grief, they both clearly enjoy life….

There are powerful moments, large and small, in this first novel. Large moments are underplayed…. She delivers the news that his disease is terminal when they are alone, in an untheatrical way. Jay is devastated by it, and the scene itself is certainly moving and dramatic, but the effect is not sentimental….

The heroine's strength of spirit and aliveness to the world keep her going, and at Jay's death, when she comes home and flings herself on their bed, we know that she has the resources, imagination and energy to get up and make her life whole again. She herself recognizes "the tough surviving membrane of her heart."

Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay this novel is that it is hard to believe it's not the author's own life and experiences that she's recording. But there is nothing in the biographical data to support this feeling, so I can only attribute it to the power of her writing. (p. 158)

Margaret Ferrari, "Book Reviews: 'Ending'," in America (© America Press, 1974; all rights reserved), Vol. 131, No. 8, September 28, 1974, pp. 157-58.

Carolyn Johnson

[Introducing Shirley Braverman] follows Shirley through three main plot lines—involvement in the New York City spelling contest, attempts to strengthen her younger brother's character, and worry about her neighbor, Buddy, who is fighting in Europe. Because no single issue dominates, the story line is weak, although each separate plot does sustain some interest on its own. Characterization is a stronger point: Theodore, Shirley's brother, is especially effective as the child for whom nothing seems to go right, and Shirley's vows to change him have humorously poignant results. Not a particularly strong book as a whole but an entertaining period piece.

Carolyn Johnson, "The Book Review: 'Introducing Shirley Braverman'," in School Library Journal (reprinted from the December, 1975 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co./A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1975), Vol. 22, No. 4, December, 1975, p. 56.

Cynthia Herbert

Missing is the richness of detail to make [Introducing Shirley Braverman] the nostalgic picture it is meant to be. [It is a] pleasant story, but it has nothing special to recommend it over a hundred other "girls" books.

Cynthia Herbert, "'Introducing Shirley Braverman'," in Children's Book Review Service (copyright © 1976 Children's Book Review Service Inc.), Vol. 4, No. 7, February, 1976, p. 65.

(The entire section is 58 words.)

Bettijane Zetterberg

[The title character of Introducing Shirley Braverman] is a twelve year old growing up amidst air raids, sirens, and Brooklyn, all of which, in their own way, provide Shirley with the means to live up to her name. She manages to smile through World War II by pre-occupying herself with the plight of a friend's older brother who is fighting overseas …, by assuming a patron saint role for an often maligned Theodore, her younger and less intelligent brother …, and by entering a state-wide spelling bee…. And Shirley comes out the winner in all.

The predictability, the not so insurmountable insurmountables, the simple fact that adolescence rarely breeds continual victories ruin what otherwise...

(The entire section is 171 words.)

Joyce Bermel

The keynote of ["Introducing Shirley Braverman"] is nostalgia for days gone by when, in Miss Wolitzer's view, life was warm and honest. The sentiment is Laura Ingalls Wilder's but the setting is familiar, the events are less exotic. Two of the more engaging chapters evoke a Saturday afternoon at the movies and a visit to "the movie lady," so dubbed because of her devotion to "Clark, Vivien, Lana, and Jimmy." But the accounts of the double feature suffer from Shirley's bland, childish prose. At times like this one wishes Shirley were less speller, more writer….

Since [Shirley's hero eventually comes home from the war], she is hardly affected by the big events of the time. The contrast is striking...

(The entire section is 165 words.)

Susannah Clapp

Ending is a woman's account of her husband's death from cancer. The course and consequences of his illness yield a plot which moves from diagnosis through the breaking of news to patient and family, to daily deterioration and eventual death. They also provoke a good deal of general retrospection and speculation….

Scornful reference is made to other characters' "stock phrases" about death and their lack of connection with the protagonists' "real lives", but Ending really serves to demonstrate the difficulty, and to some extent the foolishness, of trying to forge such connections—this despite the fact that it is often, and surprisingly, crisp and unsentimental. Looking at someone's...

(The entire section is 194 words.)

Glenda Broughton

A winner! Hilma Wolitzer displays an uncommon gift for probing with humor, warmth and compassion into the world of the emerging adolescent [in Out of Love]. Teddy Hecht's preoccupation with her mother's old love letters convinces her that her divorced parents just have to be, deepdown, still in love. Although this illusion is eventually and painfully shattered, Teddy gains a new respect for her strong and independent mother…. The plot is relevant and realistically developed, and even the minor characters ring true to the end. Young teens should find plenty in Teddy's varied experiences and growing pains to identify with and most will reach for a hankie before closing the book.

...

(The entire section is 131 words.)

Cyrisse Jaffee

[Out of Love is a] pleasant and appealing story…. There is really nothing wrong or objectionable with the book. The writing style is readable and competent, the characters are believable and their situations ring true. The relationship between Teddy and her best friend Maya is a very solid one and so is the author's portrayal of that friendship…. The portrait of Teddy's mother is also well drawn…. The obvious morals and lessons of the story—the value of one's family and friends, how not to judge people superficially, how to give people a chance by being open with them—are saved from becoming trite and hackneyed by a sympathetic cast of characters.

Cyrisse...

(The entire section is 130 words.)

Zena Sutherland

What Teddy learns [in Out of Love] (and her change and acceptance are wholly credible) is that beauty is in the eye of the loving beholder, that people recover from a ruptured relationship, and that one can love people—and they you—even when they disappoint you and no matter what they look like. The book is not unusual either in the situations it covers or in the depiction of a period in which a young adolescent gains maturity; it is perceptive, however, the characters are believable, and the writing style and dialogue have vitality.

Zena Sutherland, "New Titles for Children and Young People: 'Out of Love'," in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (©...

(The entire section is 127 words.)

Anatole Broyard

After four years of an improbably happy marriage, Paulette's husband Howard leaves her for another woman. "Don't go," she says. "I can't help it," he says. "Why?" she says. "How should I know?" he says. "What does she do, anyway?" Paulette asks, as if it were a question of doing.

This is the theme of "In the Flesh," by Hilma Wolitzer. What do you do when love leaves?…

Paulette is no ordinary housewife, any more than she is a "mad housewife" of the type so common in current fiction. She overflows the ordinary in such an archetypal manner that she is rather like a culture in decline, the passing of a way of life….

What is so good about "In the Flesh" is the way...

(The entire section is 237 words.)

Raymond Sokolov

If Emma Bovary were alive in New York's borough of Queens, she might be Hilma Wolitzer's narrator Paulette [of In the Flesh]….

Paulette is a pregnant bride and would-be poet, a spunky, ironic, suffering suffragette of the spirit. She is a big girl and will win the hardest heart with her stoical, sharp-eyed patter. (p. 110)

Paulette narrates this diary of a very sane and humorous housewife with the generous gift for pointed everyday language that is Hilma Wolitzer's precious skill. In this second novel, Wolitzer writes like a feminine Kafka, a gentle yet mordant chronicler of the sinister side of "the soap opera of adult lives."

Her Paulette sounds at first...

(The entire section is 196 words.)

Doris Grumbach

In the Flesh is first-rate, first-class, witty fiction. As a story it is unpretentious and almost commonplace, but even so, it is superbly told, a triumph of the unique voice that Wolitzer presents to us. Nothing could be more ordinary: a woman-wife, Paulette, aspires in her spare time to write poetry. The plot expands from the familial structure…. to accommodate "a touch of adultery": the affair of the wife and that of the husband, both transient events. There is a handful of peripheral friends, but mainly this is a simple celebration of the cohesion of the family unit….

In the process of creating this threnody to Hymen, Wolitzer takes us through some of the funniest minefields in...

(The entire section is 234 words.)

Jeanette Cohn

Twelve-year-old Toby and her six-year-old sister Anne must live with a foster family until their mother recovers from a nervous breakdown suffered after the sudden death of her husband [in Toby Lived Here]…. Toby's secretiveness about her mother's illness and her concern about having inherited a tendency toward such illness herself are sensitively presented so as to evoke empathy among young readers and compel an awareness, often lacking in our society, about emotional disorders. Although this book's theme is geared toward the adolescent, its reading level permits a wider audience….

Jeanette Cohn, "'Toby Lived Here'," in Children's Book Review Service...

(The entire section is 110 words.)