Study Guide

Sara Davidson

Sara Davidson Essay - Critical Essays

Davidson, Sara

Davidson, Sara 1943–

Davidson, an American novelist and journalist, is the author of Loose Change, a popular autobiographical novel and television serialization of the growth and awakening consciousness of three women in the 1960s.

Sara Davidson's book of fictionalized reportage, "Loose Change," bills itself as the true-to-life adventures of "three women of the sixties." It purports to be a social history of that tumultuous period seen through the lives of three California women … who went to Berkeley in the early 60's, were seniors when J.F.K. was assassinated, pursued the various panaceas of sexual liberation, political activism, spiritual questing and wound up being 30 and disappointed just like most people. As in a novel, the names have been changed except for Sara Davidson who appears as "Sara" in the book. Her story is by far the most authentic and interesting. What particularly distinguishes "Loose Change" from a novel about the same period is its formlessness, its easy topicality, its false sense of conveying history when it is really only dropping the names of historical events, as one might drop the names of famous people….

It is as if the author expected the mere invocation of the events to conjure memories in the reader, to carry their own emotional weight. A teen-ager born in 1963 would read this book in vain, seeking to know how it felt to be a college student when the President was assassinated. The author rattles off famous historical events for the reader rather than re-creating them, shaping them and making them come alive.

And yet there is a touching story here, and it is Sara Davidson's own story. Sara (the character, and perhaps the author, too) has an engaging sense of adventure, a willingness to try anything once, a real lust for life. She is a risk-taker, willing to be a fool if in the process she may find enlightenment….

One of the most moving sections of "Loose Change" deals with the author's passage from cynicism to trust and openness through her meetings with Ram Dass, the American guru, formerly Dr. Richard Alpert. Davidson sets out to nail and categorize Ram Dass and other "salvation seekers" and winds up questioning the roots of her profession and livelihood….

The Ram Dass material raises the most compelling questions in this otherwise rather cluttered book. What good is political radicalism if we don't seek to know and change ourselves? What good is sexual freedom if we find it difficult to love ourselves and others? What point is there to the constant chasing after exotic experiences if, in the process, we lose our own centers?…

The lives of all three women are interesting enough, but the telling is often so sprawling that only at odd moments does one feel empathy for them. As a writer, Davidson has a tendency to drown the reader in trivia—like a cook drowning a prime fillet in sauce. We have to know the brand-names of every garment worn by every character, and yet the most important emotional events (deaths, abortions, political assassinations, the disappearance of relatives in fascist countries) are passed over with hardly an effort to describe what anyone thought or felt. There is a heartbreaking shallowness here—heartbreaking because the book might have been so much stronger.

It is not that one wants answers about the 60's and whether or not their particular contribution to sensibility survived the decade, but only that the questions might have been posed more sharply.

It is fascinating to hear Sara Davidson's characters, circa 1968, predicting revolution within a minimum of six months, maximum of six years and then to realize that here it is 1977 and such predictions have already entered the hazy realm of nostalgia—along with Scott Fitzgerald's flaming youth, Hemingway's Paris and the recipes of Alice B. Toklas. What does America do to gobble up incipient revolutions, make their leaders momentarily famous on the cover of Time magazine and then throw them into the dustbin along with old soda bottles, aerosol cans and other non-recyclable trash? Why do our most passionate revolutionaries (whether leftist, black or feminist) eventually give up the hope of changing America's ways and turn instead to yogic meditation, Buddhism, "born again" Christianity or Sufism? Why is America the country of the most extravagant hopes and the most profound disappointments? Does the media really have the power to trivialize and thus destroy every important social movement, or does it only seem that way to us? Are changes really occuring at a deeper level? "Loose Change" prompts one to ask these questions; for that alone it is a useful document. (p. 21)

Erica Jong, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 29, 1977.

Utopianists see the sixties as a time of liberation from sexual stigmas, a time for broadening human perspectives, sharpening the humanist impulse. Glowerers, on the other hand, believe the "liberation" of the sixties was spurious, hedonist, vulgar, and fruitless. Sara Davidson's fascinating portrait of three women, herself included, who attended the University of California in the early 1960s, will not resolve this dispute, chiefly because its narrative details strengthen both sides of the argument….

As a picture of "how it was" to grow up in the sixties, Loose Change is vivid and all too believable. But some readers will object that it stops short of making the argument one might have expected from it—that the problems Davidson and her classmates faced were peculiar to their time, and not simply the misfortunes of bright, active women who made unlucky choices. (p. 93)

C. Michael Curtis, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1977 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), June, 1977.

[In] Loose Change … Miss Davidson proves herself one who eagerly embraced what she experienced as that decade's revolutionary spirit. Her book covers all the familiar landmarks of the 60's….

For Miss Davidson and the others chronicled in Loose Change, these sundry phenomena comprised a time of high hope and excitement, one that would usher in a new era characterized by a universal dedication to social reform, open, honest, and loving relationships, a shattering of sexual taboos, and an uncompromising disdain for the grubby pursuit of money, power, and career. That new era never arrived, and in writing Loose Change, Miss Davidson hoped to find out what went wrong and why. (p. 70)

For all the tribulations endured …, Miss Davidson looks back on the 60's as a time of confidence and exhilaration, and on herself and her peers as a "generation that was special … that had sprung from nowhere … that had glimpsed a new world where nothing would be the same." She contrasts these great times, with their optimism, energy, and certainty, with the dismal 70's, when young people are caught up instead in a "cross-generational obsession with money and security." Yet even a reader otherwise disposed to give Miss Davidson the benefit of the doubt could not help but notice that her book tends to show that things are in fact the other way around. (p. 71)

What sighs through the pages of this book, as it seems to have done through the lives of these petulant and mindless [characters], is not any buoyant revolutionary spirit but simple self-absorption—that, and an unfailing ability to wind up where the money and glamor are. The only difference in these girls' lives between the 60's and the 70's is that in the 60's they could not acknowledge what they were after, and hence were miserable much of the time, whereas in the 70's they can (if only implicitly) and so have found happiness at last.

As for reality, political and cultural reality, and all those high public events … that supposedly gave this period its meaning, these figure in Loose Change only as signposts in a private landscape, seized upon as occasions for self-dramatization on the part of one or another character, or providing Miss Davidson with material for magazine articles. The "revolution" of the 60's is nowhere to be found here, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it exists only as a function of the particular mood Natasha, or Sara, or Susie happens to be in on the morning of any particular day. Did it figure any more seriously in the lives of any other members of that generation? Miss Davidson's book gives cause for doubt. But at least we know now what these young women of the 60's are asking of us, as they stride ever resolutely onward to their brave new world: first, what should they wear; second, how should they decorate it. (pp. 71-2)

Jane Larkin Crain, "O Brave New World," (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1977 by The American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, August, 1977, pp. 70-2.

Ms Davidson's great success is to have prised out such honest autobiographies from her two friends and then to have retold their stories so vividly and compassionately. Her own story, for all its palpable anxiety to be honest, has a touch of Erica Jong boastfulness about it: all those page one stories, the statutory soft porn wowie sex scene, the glittery life which must be endured, the monster-mother who fucked her up. Ms Davidson was and is an 'over-achiever.'

For all her trying, she nearly misses in 'Loose Change.' Her new-journalistic reliance on faked dialogue, her cliff-hanging chapter endings, and her use of pulpy leitmotifs (Tasha always laughs her 'tinkling laugh'; Rob 'twinkles his blue eyes') threaten to ground the story in coyness. And except for Tasha, whose inner life and recall of it was intense, the stories lack the experiential quality of life or of a good novel. But the book stands as a painful document of what it was like to be young, female, middle class and American during the sixties.

Victoria Radin, "The Nightingales of Berkeley," in The London Observer, November 6, 1977, p. 26.