Susan Cheever Essay - Critical Essays

Cheever, Susan


Cheever, Susan 1943–

An American novelist, Cheever has written a modern female Bildungsroman called Looking for Work.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

In "Looking for Work," the story of a clever, ambitious young woman punching her way out of a soggy paper bag of a marriage, Miss Cheever shows considerable promise. She strikes a note of amusing rue that manages to avoid self-pity. She produces occasional sentences that only a born writer could achieve: "On Fifth Avenue, our countrymen, our colleagues, our good friends and lovers-to-be marched with a grim and conscientious step."

Her book is full of evocative fragments…. (p. 22)

And—not to be lightly dismissed—Miss Cheever takes a common set of circumstances and makes it sound almost like a story.

But "Looking for Work" is not really much of a story. It might have been had Miss Cheever found something fresh to say about contemporary female consciousness. But since her protagonist is more confused over whether to be a coddled baby or an autonomous grown-up than she is over the conflict between freedom and responsibility, she does not even rate as a legitimate contemporary heroine. Nor has Miss Cheever found a metaphor to tie her narrative together…. She has a voice, all right. But it will not be clearly heard until she finds something more to sing about. (p. 23)

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "Two Novels: 'Looking for Work'," in The New York Times, Section III (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 17, 1979 (and...

(The entire section is 451 words.)

Dominique Browning

Ms. Cheever means to create a sympathetic figure, but it is impossible to like or learn much from Salley Gardens [the protagonist of Looking for Work]. She is the kind of female character who indulges in all manner of shortcuts as she wanders through life's lost and found…. [In] the hands of a skilled writer who could put some critical distance between herself and her heroine, Salley Gardens would have been a brilliant caricature of the misguided females who people the screen, stage, and page. But, clearly, the author is at one with her character. As for Ms. Cheever's feeble and superficial response to women's problems, such seems to be the vogue these days. Women like Salley Gardens haven't really examined their lives, and writers like Susan Cheever haven't really examined their talents. (p. 85)

Dominique Browning, "Cheever's House of Cards" (copyright © 1979, Esquire Publishing Inc.; used by courtesy of the magazine), in Esquire, Vol. 93, No. 1, January, 1980, pp. 84-5.

Robert Kiely

Susan Cheever's "Looking for Work" is very much like a certain kind of Hollywood film: brisk, bouncy, sharply focused, filled with primary colors and abrupt transitions.

For any regular moviegoer, Susan Cheever's novel is easy to read. Nothing drags, nothing lingers, no one mopes. One imagines the heroine, Salley Gardens, bustling, regardless of her mood….

But Salley Gardens, alas, is not Rosalind Russell or even Katharine Hepburn. She is not funny, she is not eccentric and, despite Radcliffe, she does not give evidence of unusual intelligence. She has read Trollope and Stendhal and Yeats; but when she tries to think for herself, the result is less than dazzling: "The more you risk, the more you reap. The more you give, the more you get." All that can really be said for Salley Gardens is that she's thoroughly up to date. Her views of her parents, her marriage, her friends and lovers are so much in fashion that the cinematic narrative economy need not be disturbed. A few phrases and we know all the rest.

Robert Kiely, "Three Novels: 'Looking for Work'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 6, 1980, p. 10.

Susan Kennedy

The history of a marriage begun in the bright, hopeful days of the 1960s and coming to grief in the sombre and choppy seas of the 1970s amid complaints that the wife's talents and career are being allowed to atrophy—this is familiar enough ground for a first novel today. But, despite appearances, Looking for Work is by no means a strident feminist tract. Political events of the day are mentioned only to identify the particular…. Its slightly self-deprecating air of good humour is in many ways closer to the Salinger-derived autobiographical novels of the 1950s and early 1960s….

Susan Cheever enlivens [the] well-trodden literary topography [of New York, Europe, and San Francisco] with some good descriptive writing; indeed, it is her unobtrusive technical assurance, her respect for the just use of words, that keeps the novel together. In a few skilfully juxtaposed images she vividly describes the eclecticism of San Francisco in the early 1970s.

It does not seem unfair to conclude that Salley wants to have her cake and eat it. Her efforts at looking for work are confined to badgering for interviews with Village Voice and Newsweek. She feels remarkably little compunction that her taste for good food and expensive clothes is maintained at Jason's expense. Susan Cheever writes with a professional journalist's eye for the circumstantial detail that delineates character. In this she reveals a delicate use of irony. It seems a pity that she has not made use of this same beam of irony to penetrate the deeper paradoxes of her characters' behaviour.

Susan Kennedy, "Naming Names," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4013, February 22, 1980, p. 210.

Eric Goldstein

In this messy, lifeless little novel [Looking for Work], Salley Potter joins the hordes of educated, half-liberated heroines stumbling toward fulfillment, Upper East Side-New York style. Starting with her ill-considered betrothal in the mid-1960s, Salley narrates the slow breakup of her marriage, several affairs and her constant search for writing jobs.

Looking for Work is an autobiographical novel in the worst possible way: the characters are vague, half-realized creatures, lost amid the blandly reconstituted furniture of Ms. Cheever's own life. Details are altered—for example, Salley's rich, famous, WASPy, intellectual father is a Comp-Lit professor instead of a writer—but whether it's fact, fiction or faction matters little when everything is so sketchy….

The real-life celebrities that drop into Ms. Cheever's first novel are merely props in a story that languishes in a no man's land between fiction and memoir—lacking the imagination of the former and the required discipline of the latter.

Salley is neither witty and engaging like Isadora Wing in Fear of Flying, nor irresistibly neurotic like the Diane Keaton character in Manhattan. A woman who is calm, vulnerable and yearning is meant to emerge from Looking for Work's sketchy vignettes, but the insipid narrative voice she is given makes her often sound stupid and bloodless. Salley's descriptive powers are meager: parties she takes us to are "chic," the guests at them "eccentric." Although the repeated use of "and" plus lots of incomplete sentences aim to convey the texture of Salley's emotions, the result is trite and muddy….

Eric Goldstein, "Heeding the Wrong Calling," in The New Leader (© 1980 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. LXIII, No. 4, February 25, 1980, p. 20.

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese

[Susan Cheever in Looking for Work] has the stylistic control and cheek of the trendiest New York magazines. And, leaning towards the surface brilliance and plush familiarity of high-budget films (one thinks of An Unmarried Woman), she paints the cheery saga of a spoiled, upper-middle-class brat who marries the wrong guy (no class, ethnic, or major psychological complications here, just the first guy you marry on your way into the world), has an affair, and finally gets ready for a steady job—which, of course, she finds. There is no indication that the "work" of the title is to be taken with the seriousness a Gail Godwin takes it. Cheever's heroine goes to Newsweek to work on the intellectual...

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Cheryl Rivers

Susan Cheever's novel, Looking for Work,… belongs to a tradition of realism which sets itself the task of illuminating the way we all live now. Moreover, Cheever's novel is an attractive contribution to what we have begun to recognize as a female realistic style in which brand names, store names, and restaurant names—Cosmopolitan, Saks, Cartier, Tiffany, Erno Laslo, Johnny Walker Red—serve as objective correlatives and mark the limits of the characters' lives. Following the trends of the recent social novel, Cheever gives us the de rigueur contrasts of New York and California, adding to these mythologies acute observations and quick delineations of difference. She provides the psychiatrist...

(The entire section is 991 words.)