Schwartz, Lynne Sharon
Lynne Sharon Schwartz 1939–
American novelist, short story writer, and critic.
Schwartz's novels, which portray marriage and family in contemporary America, have attracted considerable critical attention. Her first novel, Rough Strife (1980), follows a married couple through the ups and downs of their twenty years together, ultimately presenting a positive view of the institution of marriage. Some critics asserted that Schwartz's characterizations and the quality of her prose were not sufficiently developed to sustain interest in a novel of such limited focus. However, most critics agreed that the novel revealed a notable perceptiveness and sensitivity to the nuances of love and marriage.
Like Rough Strife, Disturbances in the Field (1983) revolves around a married couple, Lydia and Victor, but in this later novel Schwartz's scope is much broader. The family tragedy that occurs midway through the novel adds a serious perspective to the dailiness of life. In addition, Schwartz writes about Lydia's friends, her childhood, and her profession, and includes discussions of philosophy. Balancing Acts (1981) deviates from Schwartz's other novels in subject matter, concentrating on a rebellious teenage girl and an equally rebellious elderly widower, whose interaction allows Schwartz to examine the experiences and problems of adolescence and old age.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 103.)
In the last few years, in lives outside novels, things have slowly begun to change. Women have turned to men not as supports for weak egos and empty wallets, but as partners, equals, friends. Many found a life devoid of men and children lonely. The biological clock, which many women had turned to the wall, was running out; the revolutionaries were in their thirties and feeling panic.
In this context, it should come as no surprise that … [Rough Strife] should be touted as "deeply typical … the private history of a generation." Schwartz has written an American "Scenes from a Marriage." Without sentimentality or bitterness, the author traces the slow and subtle changes of a 20-year union between Caroline and Ivan, and it all rings true: the crises and dull spells, the falling in and out of love with the same person, the struggle of creating an enduring partnership….
While [Caroline] and Ivan like being together,… they are weighed down by the idea of marriage, by society's expectations, and by their own "vague constraint, like behaving well in school." (p. 37)
[They] conceive their first child after years of trying, just when the seams of the marriage are about to unravel. This fortuitous timing seems rather forced, exposing, I suspect, a splicing of the author's prizewinning, original short story, "Rough Strife" … with the novel she has constructed around it.
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For the upper-middle classes, it has been said, marriage is the only adventure left. This is a charming notion—a brave little bank of explorers set off two by two for the mysterious and uncharted coasts of intimacy, while friends and relations cheer and toss in the air their copies of Psychology Today—but it's also a little sad. Are there really no new worlds to conquer except the ones in the bedroom and the kitchen? Must one's energies be focused relentlessly inward, as though society at large had no use for them?
For Caroline and Ivan, whose 20-year marriage is the subject of this flawed but talented first novel ["Rough Strife"], the answer is yes. When we meet them, at 45 and 50, their lives are outwardly smooth, comfortable, conventional….
To each other, though, they are anything but ordinary. They are mythic figures, fated lovers like Catherine and Heathcliff: "There had been a quiver of recognition when they first met … not love at first sight, but bowing to destiny." And ever since destiny swept them to the altar, their marriage in all its parts—good, bad and indifferent—has been the one absorbing drama of their lives.
The irony behind the idea of marriage as middle-class adventure, though, is that everyone's adventure turns out to be the same—at least in novels. Caroline and Ivan see themselves as forging a new and original relationship, but they follow the broad cultural...
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Georgia A. Brown
[In evaluating the literary merits of Rough Strife] I would submit the novel's first paragraph:
Wasn't it miraculous, that she could feel this way after so long? Desire, she meant, and its fulfillment. Ivan lay collapsed on her, slipping out in a protracted slowness. She made no effort to keep him. In a moment she would open her eyes to the bedroom ceiling, an off-white marked by grainy, old imperfections on the surface. She would repossess identity, a structure chiseled by circumstance. Till then she would yield to this larger existence: the breadth of oceans, the reach of continents! A dupe, of course, yet what a fine geographical extravaganza, sponsored by Ivan. Caroline smiled.
If the reader admires such prose the reader may well admire this novel. The reader may even find such writing spare, exacting, or gifted. I find it astonishing that a publisher might let such a paragraph go without copyediting.
Desire is not a way of feeling, nor is fulfillment. A dupe is a deceived person, not, as the construction indicates, a deception. Moreover, the second sentence indicates (she meant) that this rhetorical questioning is Caroline's; how then can she not yet be returned to her "identity"?… There are certain assumptions too that one might wish to question. For example, in what way has Ivan paid for—that is,...
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In this extremely likable novel [Balancing Acts] a retired acrobat captures the imagination and affections of a 13-year-old girl. During the uneven course of their relationship one of them learns to accept life and the other to relinquish it…. Each is looking for transcendence, a way to escape the law of gravity. What they find, as they jostle each other's lives, is a precarious sense of balance.
The novel is well-written, artfully constructed, and peopled with engaging characters, but it suffers from an excess of symmetry. Schwartz's first novel, Rough Strife—a fine anatomy of a marriage—was also about a kind of balance, but the author left the edges a bit rough, like marriage itself. In Balancing Acts, perhaps because the protagonists are more vulnerable, the effect is less abrasive, and the central metaphor is polished to an insistent shine. Like the grown man in the riddle of the sphinx, the book walks very nicely on two legs, but unlike the author's first novel, it seldom soars.
Judith Gies, in a review of "Balancing Acts," in Saturday Review, Vol. 8, No. 6, June, 1981, p. 54.
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Rough Strife is Lynne Sharon Schwartz's first book, and you can understand her thinking: enough of all the downbeat stuff, I'll have a go at the good news. But unaccompanied by zest and witty insight, marital contentment is full of dangers.
Miss Schwartz tells the long, dull story of the years of happy marriage between Ivan and Caroline…. They have their dreary downs and drearier ups, and still go on loving, wanting and needing each other. Which is fortunate, because it is unlikely anyone else would put up with either of them—a more deadly couple I've rarely met in fiction.
Indeed, there is only one lesson to be learned from their tale: if you want a happy marriage, call your loved one by his or her name constantly. Caroline and Ivan do so all the time, like characters in a Mike Leigh play gone mad—even when they are alone and could not possibly be addressing any other happily married character…. Miss Schwartz is apparently considered 'brainy' and 'deeply moving' by her American critics. I fail to agree with them: to me the only memorable part of the book was the shock of finding 'diaper' had become a verb. The dreadful Ivan 'diapered' the baby, thus becoming a 'true father'.
Angela Huth, "Marriage Matters," in The Listener, Vol. 106, No. 2721, August 6, 1981, p. 120.∗
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Not to beat about the bush; Balancing Acts is the best book through which I've browsed and burrowed for a long time. It has that beguiling simplicity of style which lets the reader rummage innocently in its pages, until, by some invisible and subtle act of stealth, it reaches in to give the heart a quick twist. Thereafter, the pages turn themselves, oblivious of fingers.
The plot pits its protagonists quickly together. Widower Max, a circus veteran in his seventies, has a rumpus with the rules in a respectable residence for the elderly. But his real war is waged upon the happy memories of his marriage, which threaten to overwhelm him. He volunteers his acrobatic skills to a local school, where his energetic antics enliven the schoolkids, amongst whom is Alison. Alison, thirteen, is lonely and rebellious like Max, frustrated by her friends and family, whose humdrum aspirations she despises….
For Alison, Max is like 'a messenger in a play who bursts in with news of the outside world', and he unwittingly catapults her fantasies into the circus's whirling world. She besieges her unwilling idol. But Max is treading a different tightrope, and his grudging admission of Alison to his privacy at 'Pleasure Knolls' is only because of Lettie, an ageing former chorus-girl with whom he has an unforeseen romance at the home. From warm, generous Lettie he is learning the lessons of old age; he has little time to teach a...
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Like Schwartz's fiction debut, Rough Strife, [Disturbances in the Field] is a model of emotional richness and pliability, with sunniness clouded by shared history … yet still surviving. And here once more (in contrast to her slight, disappointing second book, Balancing Acts), Schwartz is paying close attention to the subject-matter she illuminates so well, with such generosity: a marriage and a family. Victor Rowe, a painter, lives with wife Lydia and four children on New York's Upper West Side. We are drawn into their daily life, their recalled courtship at Columbia/Barnard in the 1950s, who their friends were and are. (Schwartz gives Lydia a nucleus of women friends who, over the years, have met to discuss Greek philosophy—as their lives, married or single, have become less and less hypothetical; it's a risky, lovely touch.)… Then, suddenly, there's a fracture. The two youngest children are killed in a ski-trip bus accident—and all comes tumbling down…. Schwartz gives Lydia's grief a texture of dailiness so well-modulated, within a society of sympathy (her friends gather around yet all are deficient), that it feels like the way people truly do mourn—through living it out, with the mind and the sorrow as two distinct reflections of the soul, moving side by side through time, each at its own pace. (For instance, Lydia thinks about the dead children only obliquely, just as a wound still seeping can't be directly prodded.) And if...
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The triumph of Disturbances in the Field, Lynne Sharon Schwartz's luminous third novel, is that it faces the most relentless loss without sacrificing its humanity. Where our pain is beyond language, and perhaps beyond literature, Schwartz turns to music; the resulting symphony—like Schubert's "Trout" Quintet, the piece that more than any other reverberates through the book—offers "a sense of loss and nostalgia amid plenty, of death in the midst of fertility."… Disturbances in the Field creates … a balance, a harmony of ideas, despairing in order to affirm….
In many ways, the first half of Disturbances in the Field is a portrait of the good life as it might be lived by a certain kind of fortyish Upper West Side woman: a prefeminist intellectual who prefers philosophy to politics, introspective, talented, secure in a marriage so rewarding that she guards its secrets even from her closest friends. Lydia and her artist husband Victor, together since the days of college Chaucer, "felt born from the same soil, our cells interchangeable, and our love had the heady tingle of incest. Even to say I love you was a semantic error, too great a separation."
The college friendships with Gabrielle, Nina, and Esther … ripen and endure, though in middle age the passion for ideas gives way to other loves…. Images of Lydia's parents, who "carried so many heavy things in their arms" but "in time weakened...
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It takes a long time to get to the good part in Lynne Sharon Schwartz's third novel, "Disturbances in the Field." One has to slog through a lot of adolescent talk, which led me to wonder whether anyone but the parents or peers of adolescents could find them consistently interesting. They try so very hard: even their ideas seem to be choked with hormonal changes, to have poor complexions….
In every college, there's a certain kind of student who insists on writing "lyrical" or "personal" term papers, trying to mix memory and desire with the curriculum. When this happens, the instructor is almost always embarrassed or frustrated, and this is how I felt much of the time while listening to Lydia, Nina, Gaby and Esther. All through the book I came across sentences beginning "Heraclitus was right," "The Greek atomist Leucippus believed," "I thought again of Empedocles" or "Grief, Aristotle wrote …"
There's a fortune-cookie quality to many of these quotations, a strenuous and uninspired reaching for analogy or metaphor. Even when the parallel works, it seemed to me like the undigested lessons of an intellectual nouveau riche. It's hard enough to keep the rather ordinary lives of these four women clear in one's mind without the intervention of Schopenhauer, Abelard and Heisenberg. In a true novel of ideas, all of these doctrines would have been implicit, for no character comes alive through a reading list. The very title...
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Disturbances in the Field is just such a novel as Henry James would have approved, being not so much a story, moral or otherwise, as the execution of an entire, unique world out of a generous accumulation of detail, character, and incident. In its size and its freedom, it achieves the "immense and exquisite correspondence with life" that James maintained was the stuff and soul of fiction. It has the total quality of reality, in all its untidiness and muddlement and mulish resistance to logic and formula. It is a novel in which an intensely rich and complex scene radiates out from the hub of its subjective center.
It begins, like [James's Portrait of a Lady], from the premise that ordinariness is far more interesting than the exotic. Lydia Rowe introduces herself on the first page like this: "I was nearly forty-two and still seeking to understand." Presumptuous indeed, Lydia is not content merely to live—she wants to understand as well, and it is ultimately as a seeker of wisdom that she constitutes herself as a worthy Subject.
At forty-two, Lydia has it all, that is to say, everything the average middle-class American girl aspires to: a devoted husband, a rising career as a chamber musician, four beautiful children, and a close-knit group of loving friends. Her best friends—Nina, Gaby, and the formidable Esther—date from her Barnard years, where they first tasted the fruit of knowledge together in...
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[Disturbances in the Field] is this quarter's entrant in the Domestic Realism Sweepstakes, Upper West Side Division, a long and messy book told in the first person by one Lydia Rowe, who at forty-two has four lovely children, a talented and successful husband, her own increasingly satisfying career as a chamber pianist, and a Volvo. She keeps up with her college friends, thinks about the pre-Socratic philosophers she read as a freshman at Barnard, and has settled comfortably into a present in which she believes she has attained the "placidity that comes with the relief of growing up and believing that nothing wonderful or terrible will ever happen to you again." So guess what happens in the next chapter? No, it's not as macabre as it was in The World According to Garp. The accident happens offstage, only two of her children are involved, and they even get to die instantly and presumably without pain. In the aftermath Lydia becomes cold and competent and inhuman…. No wonder Victor leaves her for "the embrace of some fat old mama." Schwartz's narrator is so would-be-ironical about fashionable "lifestyles"—and so completely a sucker for them. Lydia's college friend George, now a therapist, provides the novel's title. "Disturbances in the field" take place when "something gets between the expressed need on the one hand and the response on the other. So the need doesn't receive the proper response and the transaction remains unfinished."...
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