Howard, Maureen (Vol. 14)
Howard, Maureen 1930–
Howard, an American novelist and autobiographer, uses polished and precise language to write of ordinary domestic life. Her autobiography, Facts of Life, explores many of the same themes that her earlier Bridgeport Bus had explored fictively. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56.)
The improbable heroine of [Bridgeport Bus] is a flat-chested, hawk-nosed, five-foot-eleven-inch, 35-year-old virgin from Bridgeport, Conn. Not surprisingly, she departs both from Bridgeport and virginity, but she is less interesting rather than more for having done so….
Pregnancy and death are not so terrible as dullness—in novels, anyway—and Mary Ag gets dull. The careful, tight writing gets loose, diffuse, and self-indulgent. Mary Ag keeps a journal, writes a play, records the irrelevant story of a wayward, show-girl cousin, as if she were filibustering and reading cookbooks into The Congressional Record. It is almost enough to make one forget the initial pleasure of meeting a finely...
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Maureen Howard's Before My Time is not as good as it should be, and not as good as admirers of Bridgeport Bus had reason to hope, but it is in many places a very impressive work nonetheless. (p. 618)
When Howard is dealing with the Cogans of Bruckner Boulevard—mother Millie in a flashback as a stenographer, daughter, and lover, "failed" father Jack in a marvelous friendship with a retired Jewish millionaire, Siobhan and Cormac trying to settle in to an unoccupied highrise apartment—she is at her best, and that best is very good. But the major focus of the book is really on Millie's Boston cousin, Laura Quinn, discovering she is still before her time. Howard locates Laura's resentful...
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My first impression of Facts of Life was of sheer novelistic skill, of so many stories, moods and time-shifts turning up in every chapter that it looked as if the author was stuck with a lot of effects that she couldn't unload in a novel. But it turned out to be a ruthlessly personal story told, like all good self-histories, to deliver the author from evil, to liberate her from some pressing burdens.
The fact that Maureen Howard doesn't seem much happier at the end of her brilliantly told story than she does at the beginning doesn't diminish her achievement. She is a dogged snipper of the human heart who, despite life with other breeds, retains a narrowly focused Catholic suspicion of...
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I can understand why a friend of mine groaned when I told him that Maureen Howard's reminiscences [in Facts of Life] centered on her childhood in Bridgeport, Connecticut: Life in that grim and prosaic city is a pretty daunting subject. But as readers of her novels know, Howard cannot be grim or prosaic for two seconds. (p. 43)
The facts of life, as Howard sees them, are three—culture, money, and sex—and how her parents shaped her adult attitudes in these matters is the central concern of these witty and vivid memoirs. But others also had their say, and Facts of Life is packed with sharply drawn sketches….
If Facts of Life has a flaw it is that it is not a...
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Maureen Howard's "autobiography" is the work of a fine novelist…. She disclaims the title "memoir," and certainly this book has nothing in common with those memoirs that are part name-dropping and part narcissism. Facts of Life is a writer's notebook, a rich source of portraits any one of which might turn into a novel. Maureen Howard observes that "hindsight is common and bland as boiled potatoes," and perhaps it is only the true novelists who can cut through the barrier of "memoir" as she does. (p. 92)
Frances Taliaferro, "Books in Brief: 'Facts of Life'," in Harper's (copyright © 1978 by Harper's Magazine; all rights reserved; reprinted from the...
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Howard, Maureen (Vol. 151)
Maureen Howard 1930-
American novelist, memoirist, editor, and short story writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Howard's career through 1998. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 5, 14, and 46.
Howard has garnered widespread critical acclaim for her novels about women searching for identity amid their career aspirations and within their socially prescribed roles. The female characters in her novels are frequently conflicted and struggle to assert their individuality, often by breaking from their families—particularly from mother figures. Howard celebrates the assertion of the human will to affect change, yet, in her works, such action does not always insure a happy or conclusive ending. Critics have commended Howard's precise use of language, her double-edged humor, and the loose structure of many of her novels, which allows readers to draw their own conclusions about characters and incidents. Howard is best known for her critically acclaimed memoir, Facts of Life (1978), which received the National Book Critics Circle Award for general nonfiction.
Howard was born on June 28, 1930, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The city of Bridgeport played a large role in Howard's formative years, and she would later use the town as the setting for several of her novels. Howard was raised in Bridgeport's Irish neighborhoods, and her Irish-immigrant father, William, was the county detective for Fairfield County. Howard attended Smith College and earned a bachelor's degree in 1952. After college, she worked for several publishing and advertising firms. In 1961, Howard published her first novel, Not a Word about Nightingales. From 1967 to 1968, she worked at the New School for Social Research, in New York City, as a lecturer in English and creative writing. Howard has continued to teach and lecture on such subjects as drama, English, and creative writing, holding positions at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Columbia University, Yale University, Amherst College, and Brooklyn College. She was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 1967 and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1980. She has also been nominated several times for the American Book Award for autobiography/biography and the PEN/Faulkner Award for nonfiction.
Not a Word about Nightingales focuses on the disruptions within a family when the father decides to leave his wife and children to pursue a life of “feeling” during a vacation in Peruvia. After eighteen months, his wife sends their daughter to bring him back; by this time, her father has become disenchanted with his hedonistic lifestyle and returns without much resistance. In Bridgeport Bus (1966), Mary Agnes Keeley, an aspiring middle-aged writer, leaves her hometown of Bridgeport on the bus to begin a new life in New York City. Mary Agnes has difficulty adjusting to life in the city and finds herself surrounded by a neurotic roommate and a suicidal cousin. She eventually returns to Bridgeport, unmarried and pregnant, to take care of her widowed mother. The award-winning memoir Facts of Life directly addresses Howard's affinity for rewriting and reinterpreting personal narratives, this time using her own life story. The work vividly portrays her parents' conflicting personalities and the consequences of her strict Catholic upbringing. Howard uses the memoir genre to call the “facts” of her life into question, demonstrating the differences and discrepancies between perception and memory. In Expensive Habits (1986), Margaret Flood, a famous American writer, undergoes bypass heart surgery and is given a new lease on life. During her recovery, she discovers that her life and career are filled with lies and untruths, some of which have hurt others. As she heals physically, she also attempts to heal the mistakes she has made in the past. Natural History (1992) is both a narrative and an anthropological assortment of facts about Bridgeport, Connecticut. The novel's loose plot focuses on Billy Bray, a county detective and the patriarch of a large family. Set in 1943, the story focuses on Bray's investigation of the murder of a soldier by an officer's wife. Bray quickly closes the investigation, but his family is plagued for years by the murdered man's brother, who seeks revenge for what he feels was Bray's inability to bring his brother's killer to justice. The novel is filled with details concerning the people, history, and culture of Bridgeport. A section titled “Double Entry” juxtaposes the narrative events with arcane Bridgeport trivia. A Lover's Almanac (1998) is stylistically similar to Natural History in that each includes both pages of straight narration and alternative bits of history, weather forecasts, folk wisdom, and trivia. The novel opens with the ending of a romantic relationship between two characters, Louise Moffett and Artie Freeman, who are splitting apart on the eve of the millennium. After the break-up, Louise and Artie attempt to impose order and criteria on their love lives, much as an almanac provides an order for natural events by presenting predictions based on facts. In 2001, Howard published Big As Life: Three Tales for Spring, a mixture of short stories and memoirs, focusing on renewal and the season of Spring.
Howard has been referred to by some critics as a “woman's writer” due to her recurring focus on female characters searching for self-awareness. Reviewers have consistently praised her prose and her well-drawn characters, both central and minor. Critics have compared her narrative style to that of Virginia Woolf, Henry James, and Toni Morrison. Howard has been noted for her skill at presenting differing points of view and her ability to seamlessly handle transitions between the past, present, and future. Many critics have applauded how Howard appropriates different literary genres for use in her fiction. For example, Natural History makes use of the screenplay, encyclopedia, diary, and history book genres within the central narrative. However, several critics have objected to Howard's tendency toward digression and loose plot structures. Some reviewers have argued that these tangential details make her novels—most notably Natural History and A Lover's Almanac—self-conscious and difficult to read. Some critics have panned the innovative and experimental narrative techniques used in these two works, such as the use of parallel texts on the right- and left-hand pages in Natural History, which Noel Perrin called “a semi-psychedelic melange.” Critical reaction to Howard's seemingly endless fascination with the city of Bridgeport has also been mixed. Some reviewers have derided her continual use of the city as a focus in her novels as repetitive and uninteresting. However, other commentators have praised Howard's utilization of the city as a major character. Many agreed with Pearl K. Bell, who stated that the depiction of Bridgeport in Howard's works ultimately seeks “to defy the evanescence of memory,. … [and] lament the irrevocable dissolution of vanished experience.”
Not a Word about Nightingales (novel) 1961
Bridgeport Bus (novel) 1966
Before My Time (novel) 1975
Seven American Women Writers of the Twentieth Century [editor] (nonfiction) 1977
Facts of Life (memoirs) 1978
Grace Abounding (novel) 1982
The Penguin Book of Contemporary American Essays [editor] (nonfiction) 1984
Expensive Habits (novel) 1986
Natural History (novel) 1992
A Lover's Almanac (novel) 1998
Big As Life: Three Tales for Spring (short stories and memoirs) 2001
SOURCE: “The Lure of the Bright Lights,” in Washington Post Book World, May 27, 1984, p. 11.
[In the following review, Perrin offers a positive assessment of Bridgeport Bus, praising Howard's treatment of the theme of personal transformation.]
Mary Agnes Keeley, 35 years old, 5 feet 11 inches tall, thin as a pencil, lives with her widowed mother in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Her father, a Bridgeport fireman, died when she was 15. Right after high school she went to work to help put her brother through Fordham. He is now an FBI agent, assigned to the Buffalo, New York, office, with a wife and three children. Mary Agnes is secretary to the president of Standard...
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SOURCE: “Maureen Howard: Satire and Sympathy,” in Washington Post Book World, May 11, 1986, p. 3.
[In the following review, Yardley offers a positive assessment of Expensive Habits, commenting on the ways that the novel breaks from Howard's earlier work.]
By contrast with Maureen Howard's four previous novels, Expensive Habits is long and, in the conventional sense, ambitious: the other books are delicate miniatures, elegantly crafted and somewhat elliptical in narrative method, but Expensive Habits attempts to paint a relatively large canvas and does so in a rather straightforward manner. The novel appears—the impression is fortified by the...
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SOURCE: A review of Expensive Habits, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 18, 1986, p. 1.
[In the following mixed review, Johnson argues that Expensive Habits is a well-written work, but argues that there are several unclear plot elements and character motivations.]
Maureen Howard's fine fifth novel attempts more, and accomplishes more, than all the others, marking her steady progress toward the highest rank of American fiction writers. The prose of Expensive Habits is dense, complex, disturbing, authoritative. Its several voices suit her story and vividly demonstrate her literary intelligence. It's dazzling to see how deftly she wields her...
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SOURCE: “Design for Living,” in New York Review of Books, December 3, 1992, pp. 30–32.
[In the following review, Edwards argues Natural History's unconventional narrative structure complements the novel's thematic material.]
Anyone who loves natural history museums knows that the first moment we enter one, particularly as children, we understand that the collections are not the main point; they are for soberer minds. The point is the dioramas, those magical windows opening on times and places we will never actually visit. And the best dioramas, for our purposes, include not just simulacra of animals and plants but also the human forms posed among them, as...
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SOURCE: “Circling Back to Bridgeport: Maureen Howard's Unconventional Saga of a Family and a City,” in Chicago Tribune Books, October 25, 1992, p. 1.
[In the following positive review of Natural History, Anshaw commends the novel's “subtle and subjective notion of story.”]
Stories can't always be held within conventional forms. Although novels most often put one page after the other in a forward progression, most narratives in life are not composed of a neatly chronological sequence of events, or even of just the events themselves. In truth, stories jump forward then back again, head off in several directions at once and include the imaginings of the...
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SOURCE: “The Fragmentation of Reality,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 25, 1992, p. 3.
[In the following review, Eder offers a mixed assessment of Natural History, noting that Howard's narrative technique is too unfocused and self-conscious.]
Natural History is a novel about the dissolution of American immigrant values in the second half of the 20th Century, and of our industrial cities where those values once flourished. This, though, is like saying that Magritte's famous painting is about a curved wooden pipe. What the painting really is about is a displacement of reality achieved by the words at the bottom: “This is not a pipe.”...
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SOURCE: A review of Natural History, in New Republic, November 9, 1992, pp. 46–49.
[In the following review, Robinson praises the experimental narrative techniques used by Howard in Natural History.]
Maureen Howard writes about her abiding subject, the family, with fierce rigor, as though she were at the same time writing in defense of the family novel itself. Not for her the cozy domestic zones where passions are labeled and personal histories are smugly untangled into “relationships.” In the seven books she has published since 1960, Howard's humor and ready sympathy are buttressed by a stubborn refusal to slim down her people and their stories. She...
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SOURCE: “Lost in Bridgeport,” in Washington Post Book World, November 22, 1992, p. 6.
[In the following review, Perrin offers a negative assessment of Natural History, calling the novel “almost unreadable.”]
In 1965, Maureen Howard published a stunningly good novel called Bridgeport Bus. It's about a 35-year-old virgin named Mary Agnes Keeley. She lives in Bridgeport, Conn., with her suffocating Irish mother (her fireman father is dead) and works as secretary to the president of a zipper company. Then she breaks loose and goes to New York. She finds men, adventures, a somewhat better job; she writes one part of the book herself in a surrealistic...
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SOURCE: “Tales of Two Cities,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 10, No. 3, December, 1992, p. 20.
[In the following review, Pool argues that the series of “natural, social, and personal histories” portrayed in Natural History do not add up to a compelling whole.]
Anyone seeking to pinpoint the nature of the contemporary novel will have a rough time of it. Wearing old-fashioned stays, postmodern garb, or singular outfits with no designer labels at all, our novels march their many ways, fulfilling the possibilities or landing in the pitfalls of their chosen modes.
Both of these novels, for example, revolve around an American city and...
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SOURCE: “Around and over and about Bridgeport,” in New Leader, December 14, 1992, pp. 24–25.
[In the following review, Davis offers a mixed assessment of Natural History.]
Matched in her spectacular range perhaps only by Toni Morrison, Maureen Howard can write in any style she chooses. Almost defiantly she follows her fancy wherever it leads, gathering unlikely personalities along the way. Natural History might be called, as one of its characters, P. T. Barnum, in a letter to Mark Twain, called his own most famous production, “a colossal traveling exhibition never before equaled.” The novel's multimedia form (well over a hundred pages are screenplay)...
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SOURCE: “Novel Strains for Effect,” in Christian Science Monitor, December 14, 1992, p. 12.
[In the following review, Rubin offers a negative assessment of Natural History, criticizing the novel's format and structure.]
Maureen Howard's much-heralded novel Natural History, is a penitential, quasi-Joycean chronicle/collage that purports to do for Bridgeport, Conn., what James Joyce did for Dublin. Winner of a National Book Critics Circle prize for her memoir Facts of Life, and the author of five previous novels, Howard is a sincere and serious writer. Her intentions are doubtless worthy, but this novel never gets off the ground.
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SOURCE: A review of Natural History, in Partisan Review, Vol. LX, No. 1, 1993, pp. 68–70.
[In the following review, Bell argues that Natural History's “uncontainable ingenuity” overshadows the novel's plot.]
The hero of Maureen Howard's Natural History is Bridgeport, Connecticut, where she was born and bred in an Irish Catholic family. A once-thriving manufacturing center on Long Island Sound, Bridgeport, like many such industrial towns of New England, fell victim to blight and decay after the Second World War. In several of her novels and the memoir Facts of Life, Bridgeport has been Howard's Dublin, the native ground that has...
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SOURCE: “On the Other Hand …,” in Commonweal, February 12, 1993, p. 23.
[In the following review, Malin offers a positive assessment of Natural History, complimenting the novel's complexity and depth.]
Natural History deserves more than a brief review. It moves on at least three levels: it is, first, a study of the Bray family—Billy and Nell, the parents, and James and Catherine their children; it is also a study of “history,” a meditation, if you will, on what the word means not only to the Bray children but to all who want to recapture the “past” and discover that it never existed as implacable fact; it is, finally about the “mix” of...
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SOURCE: “Assimilation Blues: Maureen Howard's Facts of Life,” in MELUS, Vol. 18, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 95–102.
[In the following essay, O'Brien explores the themes of assimilation and ethnic identity in Facts of Life.]
Narratives of exile and immigration arguably bring into sharper focus than other autobiographical modes the concept identified by Philippe Lejuene as “the autobiographical pact.”1 One reason why this may be the case is that there is an implicit struggle in autobiography, an application to the self of the sense of confrontation and critique that is applied to the objective world in Realist fiction. The experience typified...
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SOURCE: “Millennium Light,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 25, 1998, p. 6.
[In the following review, Friedman offers a positive assessment of A Lover's Almanac.]
“Lightness is his affliction,” Louise Moffett says of her lover Artie in Maureen Howard's comic tour de force, A Lover's Almanac, a novel about love, art and life precariously poised at the edge of the third millennium. Patching into the narrative excerpts from works dating as far back as the Greek and Roman classics and as contemporary as the lyrics of a Joni Mitchell song, Howard extends the boundaries of her love story into a broader meditation on Western thought. The story begins...
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SOURCE: “Seasoning Love,” in Nation, January 26, 1998, pp. 29–32.
[In the following review, Simon offers a positive assessment of A Lover's Almanac, noting its stylistic similarities to Natural History.]
About your arcade. You do see the pathos and pretension of the great Parisian arcades popping up in Bridgeport—your little glassed-over alley!
—Maureen Howard, Natural History
Once celebrated as a hallmark of America's cheery future, its robust inner health, the suburb has fallen from grace. No longer do aluminum siding, pink shutters and identically plotted lawns signal...
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SOURCE: “Stormy Weather,” in Washington Post Book World, February 8, 1998, p. 5.
[In the following review, Dooley offers a negative assessment of A Lover's Almanac, criticizing the novel's lack of focus and cohesion.]
For more than 600 years, almanacs have been counting us through the calendar, helping us to calculate the position of the sun, moon and planets, entertaining us with feeble jokes, providing us with reminders of famous birthdays, cautioning that on such and such a day people in such and such an area will rise to find their world buried under snow. Once the almanac may have filled a need, but now it is a magpie collection of bright and shiny...
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SOURCE: “Far from Home,” in Commonweal, March 27, 1998, p. 24.
[In the following review, Schwartz offers a mixed assessment of A Lover's Almanac, arguing that the novel's minor characters are more compelling than the protagonist.]
In A Lover's Almanac, Maureen Howard moves far afield from the literary precincts of spirited Irish-Catholic women where she has made her mark. In this more youthful, futuristic venue, Howard's protagonists are a star-tossed couple, Louise (Lou, Lou-Lou) Moffett, an aspiring artist on the cusp of Downtown success, and her boyfriend Arthur (Artie) Freeman, a computer-graphics adept for a cyberspace ad agency. The opening...
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SOURCE: “On the Love Boat,” in New York Review of Books, July 16, 1998, pp. 31–35.
[In the following review, Wood explores the literary technique of utilizing correspondence to narrate a story, citing A Lover's Almanac as a prime example.]
Milan Kundera's new novel, Identity, written in French and marked at its end as “completed in France, Autumn 1996,” reads like a modest commentary on a famous page in Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. Charles Swann's love for Odette de Crécy, entering its unhappiest phase, is described as an illness, in which physical desire, and even Odette's person, play only a small...
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Coulter, Moureen. “Bridgeport Revisited.” Belles Lettres 9, No. 1 (Fall 1993): 15.
Coulter discusses the recurring characters in Howard's works and the cinematic prose style of Natural History.
Flower, Dean. “Politics and the Novel.” Hudson Review 46 (Summer 1993): 395–402.
Flower explores political issues in the writings of Maureen Howard, Julian Barnes, Imre Kertész, Ian McEwan, Rita Dove, and Wendell Berry.
Leonard, John. “Up from Bridgeport.” New York Times Book Review (1 July 2001): E10.
Leonard offers a positive assessment of Big As...
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Howard, Maureen (Vol. 5)
Howard, Maureen 1930–
Ms Howard is an American novelist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56.)
Maureen Howard's Before My Time … seems to me a very good novel indeed, one of the best I've read in quite a while…. The tone is breezy, pushy enough to give us a sense that Laura's story will be a story, but so scrappily involved with itself, with the implications of the previous sentence, that it may need no plot to get that story told. Anyone who has read Howard's first two novels, Not a Word About Nightingales and Bridgeport Bus, will recognize this as her distinct voice, but it also bears an easy unselfconscious relation to the great monologuists of the last decade: Bellow, Mailer.
The great difference between Maureen Howard and anyone else I can think of who is remotely like her is that her assurance, her breezy way of letting one sentence twist off from the one before, carries with it no heavy burden of self. Here is Laura Quinn, and Jimmy Cogan, and Laura's husband, and Jimmy's mother, father, brother and sister, girl friend—here they are all, the book is like a series of short stories—but Howard not only doesn't work to give them distinct voices, she doesn't work very hard, in the normal sense, to make them characters. What they have, more precious almost than voice or self, is lives they are leading. (pp. 221-22)
In a book that just keeps moving off its own energies, that spins off stories with abundance, there are problems, no matter how wonderful the writing is page by page. The obvious one is focus, and if Howard rightly knows she must abjure big scenes that will smell of the lamp and inkhorn plots, she also wants it to come together…. There's not a page in this book that I could point to and wish it were different, yet I did not feel it all working out quite right at the end. Perhaps all I really hope is that she has or will soon have a novel called My Time to follow this one, because my dissatisfaction here was certainly no greater than what I felt finishing the separate books of other sequences I've liked very much, like Frederic Buechner's and Robertson Davies's. Howard has taken fifteen years to write her three novels, so that we know the apparent case of her prose is not something she finds easy, and her books are so good, so capable of lingering in the memory, that perhaps one must not press the point. But I do hope she hasn't finished with Laura Quinn. (pp. 223-24)
Roger Sale, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1975 by The University of the South), Winter, 1975.
"Before My Time" is both a direct descendant of [Maureen Howard's] first two books ["Not a Word About Nightingales" and "Brideport Bus"] and a departure, a sport, an evidence of how many unrepetitive subjects and persons Maureen Howard's head is capable of imagining and then fixing in perfect language for our understanding. As in the others, there is no message, only an urgent, desperate meaning; the medium in which it grows is a further display of her sane, evocative, simple and exact prose. The story's overall coloration is once again Irish-Catholic, because that world seems to be the American world Howard knows best, but it is in no sense limited to that milieu.
"Nightingales" was a paradox of a novel. It convinced through the originality of its parts, at the same time that, throughout, it seems to echo familiar fictional themes…. What is not reminiscent … is the writing, the creation of memorable characters….
"Bridgeport Bus" is another matter. For the richness and complexity of its extraordinary central character, Mary Agnes Keely, 35-year-old virgin, novelist-in-the-making and figure of fun, who escapes her mother and life in Connecticut aboard a bus to New York, I can think of only one parallel: Gulley Jimson in "The Horse's Mouth." Both characters are word-mass creations whose creative spirits are not so much talked about as displayed by the force of the novel itself. Mary Agnes is one of the few characters in recent fiction (she tells the novel herself) to persuade me that she is the gifted, original, talented person she is depicted to be….
There is no story to "Bridgeport Bus"—unless it is the picaresque tracing of a tragic parabola, the journey of the gaunt, self-educated, superbly aware and talented woman in search of life and art…. The women in this novel are as good as any I can think of: consider the thin and often anemic, thinly disguised self-portraits that novelists often give us….
After Maureen Howard's latest novel has been properly noticed, its admirers will want to go back to savor Mary Agnes's cruel wit, her mixture of "cool intelligence and fire."
In "Before My Time" we meet two interrelated Irish-American families….
What happens in these lives (the thematic pattern is so much the same in the three books that one comes to see that Maureen Howard is using all her ingenuity to the same inexorable end) is precisely nothing….
Again the theme of an uneventful, deeply felt, nonprogress, of captivity in the sacrament and ritual of marriage, of life as a series of inconsequential events, poignant and terrible, signifying little. And again it is an unremitting catalogue of the snares and delusions of family life: it "is like the classics played in modern dress by an amateur troop. Vulgarized versions of the old tales."…
Maureen Howard has the gift of being unobtrusively present in her fictions, like the good children who are neither seen nor heard. But her hand is felt, controlling events, keeping them in their assigned comic or poignant rings, preventing excess and promoting restrained yet agonized, circular movement. Reading her, one is made to return to the inevitable, to the conclusions that things do not end satisfactorily so much as they happen; they seem to mean something for the moment and then disappear into memory, which is what fiction is to this extraordinary talented writer…. (p. 5)
Doris Grumbach, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 19, 1975.
Certainly Miss Howard's stylistic virtuosity cannot be disputed; every inch of her prose [in Before My Time] is trimmed and polished with meticulous skill. Yet from the first, the principal thread of her narrative is yawningly familiar: still another invasion of middle-aged suburban order by rude youth….
Miss Howard tries hard to freshen her tired scene with an abundance of eccentric characters, whose outlines are cleverly suggested but whose substance is perilously vague, and whose place in the scheme of the novel is irritatingly fuzzy. Only one of the portraits acquires incisive clarity—Jimmy's mother, a disappointed and blowzy Irish beauty tied to a chronic gambler for drab life, tippling herself away in a squalid Bronx tenement with secret nips of gin and yearning. Everyone else, including [the protagonists], remains hazy and dim, though Miss Howard's prose is never less than elegant.
Before My Time, alas, is impaled on its very perfection; in the end there is almost nothing to grasp and hold and savor. One feels consistently cheated by the "fine" writing, the artfulness of all those tentative ambiguities, the ornate fretwork of dissonance and dependence that registers so little thought and feeling about the ongoing war of American generations. At no point does Miss Howard take any chances, make the kind of reckless flying leap that Diane Johnson carries off with splendid bravura on practically every page…. Before My Time is merely an exquisite bore. (p. 18)
Pearl K. Bell, in The New Leader (© 1975 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), January 20, 1975.
The tricky construction of [Before My Time] partly damages it: the relationship between woman and boy never gets fully dramatized. It remains a muffled, theoretical "given"—the peg on which family stories are hung. But the family stories are a glinting lantern show of American success and failures—primarily Irish (contrasting Boston and New York subspecies, '40s and '70s generations), with supporting Italian and Jewish examples.
Two stories, out of many, are particularly moving. Jim Cogan's younger brother and sister, secretive, inseparable twins, enjoy a friendship with a neighboring Italian baker whose in-laws went back to Calabria to buy a husband for their unmarriageable Angelina; the twins, quizzing the immigrant about his life, "learned … about their own world though they never suspected it. The kids thought they were listening to tales of another land." Equally absorbing is the tale of the Cogans' luckless father making his salesman's calls on a patriarchal Jewish tycoon, retained as a decorative artifact in his sons' new office building: "They should put me out in the lobby with the Lipchitz," says Hoshie Feinmark. "I'm part of the museum. A work of art. This old man in the cashmere jacket and silk shirt is Poppa, a success. They never called me Poppa when they were little but it's quaint now, Jewish. Sometimes I want to laugh." Maureen Howard is subtle, oblique and precise. I like her novel a lot.
Walter Clemons, "Lantern Show," in Newsweek (copyright 1975 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), January 20, 1975, p. 76.
Traditional novelists toss pebbles into domestic pools and then take notes. The postwar fashion has been to track these projectiles directly into the muck below, but there is another, older way. As masters like Henry James and Virginia Woolf knew, the ripples on the surface can bedevil the eye and engage the mind. Before My Time brushes up this earlier technique. It transforms a brief disturbance of hearth and home into an age of anxiety….
Before My Time conveys a range of details and events that would be impressive in a novel twice as long. Although the design appears casual, the book's power is in its language. Time and again, a part is successfully substituted for a whole. One swallow can a summer make, if described with enough care, just as one scene can conjure up a lifetime. So a costumed hippie wandering the streets is pinned with words: "A child who has lost its role in the Christmas play." Quietly dropped epigrams cause wide ripples: "Family life is like the classics played in modern dress by an amateur troop. Vulgarized version of the old tales."… "I would like to write faster," [Maureen Howard] says, "but life intervenes." That, triumphantly, is exactly what happens in her novel.
Paul Gray, "Lost Generation," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), January 27, 1975, p. 78.
In … Before My Time, Maureen Howard deftly and movingly captures the feel of family life most of us have experienced, its contradictions now so deep within us that we forget how they shaped our growing up and growing old. Howard's art helps us to remember. (p. 25)
Before My Time begins and ends with Laura Quinn; her history, and her encounter with Jim Cogan, frame and focus the novel. They do not make up the whole of it. Before My Time is also the story of all the Murrays [Laura's family]. (pp. 25-6)
The Murray saga, Boston and the Bronx, is virtually a novel itself. It unfolds in fragments, set pieces, short story-like chapters … that fascinate in their own right, interlock, overlap and create a very special resonance for the Laura-Jim plot. Howard is not using technique simply to play a Rashamon game with her readers, though we can surely delight in her craft as mysteries are explained and episodes intersect. The structure and detail of Before My Time establish a world of family relationships—between siblings, between generations, with those important adults who are not one's parents. Even minor characters in this novel (neighbors, housekeeper, secretary, clients and boss) are shown in some family role, as Howard dramatizes from multiple perspectives that mix of intimacy and isolation, safety and competition, present and past the family provides in our time.
Howard's last novel, Bridgeport Bus, was a funny, sad work some readers were fortunate to discover and then eager to pass on to friends. Before My Time is a richer, more complex, perhaps more difficult novel, but also funny/sad….
Howard knows that all her characters are ordinary, and very precious: women and men, old and young, post-Kennedy liberal intellectuals and barefoot seekers of revelation. She knows that the personal truth of each is to be found in the meeting of private experience and historical moment, lets us see those truths, and then reminds us that we see them because she has trained our vision. (p. 26)
Elaine Ruben, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), February 8, 1975.