Study Guide

Susan Isaacs

Susan Isaacs Essay - Critical Essays

Isaacs, Susan

Introduction

Susan Isaacs 1943–

American novelist, editor, and critic.

Isaacs is known for the wit and satire of her fiction which explores such subjects as suburbia, marital relationships, and the quest by women for self-fulfillment. Critics attribute her best-selling status and popularity to her accurate rendering of contemporary dialogue, sharp observations about human nature, and her use of comic one-liners to evoke the absurdity of modern living and trends.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 89-92.)

Kirkus Reviews

The real mystery about this mystery-comedy-romance [Compromising Positions] is how it ever got to be a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. Admittedly, first-novelist Isaacs and her housewife-detective-narrator, Judith Singer, come across with easy wit and likable smartsiness when introducing Judith's Long Island upper-middle-suburbs milieu—the milieu also of Casanova dentist Bruce Fleckstein, whose mysterious murder has Judith all keyed up. And, as curious Judith starts digging up more and more about Dr. Bruce's kinky conquests (including some of Judith's best friends!), we're ready to breeze happily through another blood-and-fluffer, pleasantly forgettable even if the mystery itself happens to be a third-rate puzzle. Isaacs, however, has other ideas. She wants us to take Judith's amateur sleuthing seriously and realistically, to accept it as her way of fulfilling herself…. Unfortunately, this welding of the formula mystery-comedy with the self-realization novel is so unconvincing that we end up siding with pompously disapproving husband Bob, who seems to be in one book while Judith dabbles in another, fulfilling herself by wearing her bullet-proof vest as bait in a trap for the killer. The stuffy husband bit and the female lust bit … have been done better—and to death—by the Sue Kaufmans and Erica Jongs. And better mysteries are a dime a dozen. In fact, the only things that are Isaacs' own here are that sweetly satiric tone and a sure ear for contemporary dialogue; we look forward to hearing those sassy sounds in far better, less clumsily contrived, books ahead.

A review of "Compromising Positions," in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. XLVI, No. 3, February 1, 1978, p. 125.

Jack Sullivan

The trouble with "page-turners" is that we often turn the pages quickly because they are awful. We are motivated not so much by "suspense" as by self-preservation.

In ["Compromising Positions"] however, we are motivated—at least for a while—by verbal dexterity and sheer cleverness….

Set on Long Island, the novel satirizes not only thrillers but also suburbia. The narrator is housewife Judith Singer, mother of two, who involves herself in a conventionally grisly, lurid murder mystery because it is "better than facing two weeks' accumulation of laundry" and it is "a change from Sesame Street and chicken pot pies."

It is also a change from a marriage in which the heroine's "usual I'm-not-in-the-mood signal is a mighty yawn as we ascend the stairs. At that moment, we achieve a tacit understanding and he heads for the pajama drawer." If there is an occasionally strident note of knee-jerk feminism in all this, Miss Isaacs' overall aim is so precise, her one-liners so wonderfully funny, that we can hardly complain….

This is deliciously mean stuff, and it is unfortunate that Miss Isaacs doesn't have the nerve to sustain it. She gradually allows her heroine to become bogged down in an elaborate murder case that is as tedious as her laundry and her husband. Miss Isaacs is so good in her opening scenes that when the tone moves from spoofery to straight ratiocination, we're simply not in the mood.

Jack Sullivan, "Solving a Murder Beats Doing Laundry," in The New York Times Book Review, April 30, 1978, p. 15.

Charles J. Keffer

[Compromising Positions] is a delightful story for several reasons. First, the story line is interesting and suspenseful. Even when it is clear at the end who committed the murder, an unusual twist appears. Secondly, this is somewhat of a sociological study. The lives of the people of Shorehaven are bared before the reader. The characters who populate this story and the community are varied: from a religious, almost fanatical, Catholic, to the inane, lonely woman who succumbs to Fleckstein's overtures, to Judith Singer herself who finds her life with husband, Bob, and two small children basically uneventful and unexciting. Third, for those who like it, there is a little bit of simple romance. Most importantly, there is a writing style that is witty and creative. There are numerous occasions when Ms. Isaacs uses that unique turn of phrase which is most appropriate for the situation. Some readers may be taken aback slightly by some of the language and by an underlying philosophical orientation which seems to say that everybody's life is theirs to lead as they see fit. On balance, however, it's a book that I would recommend highly. I can't wait for her next one.

Charles J. Keffer, in a review of "Compromising Positions," in Best Sellers, Vol. 38, No. 5, August, 1978, pp. 151-52.

Publishers Weekly

[Close Relations] is a delightful read. The novel is both a witty analysis of big-city politics, family relationships and the singles scene in Washington and New York—all this accurate, astringent and candid—and a fairy tale love story in which the heroine finds her Prince Charming almost despite herself…. Isaacs's depiction of … [the heroine's] family is mercilessly irreverent and wickedly funny. Her ear for dialogue is perfect, especially in the scenes in which her family lecture Marcia on the dangers of a relationship with an Irishman, unleashing a barrage of ethnic slurs that are cruelly hilarious…. The novel is a risible romp throughout—the snappy dialogue yielding up laughs on every page, the love story tender and satisfying, the plot pulsing with adrenalin.

A review of "Close Relations," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 218, No. 4, July 25, 1980, p. 145.

Susan Cheever

Susan Isaacs' second novel Close Relations … focuses on a bright-but-confused woman in her mid-thirties struggling to come to terms with: (a) her commitment to a high-pressure job, speechwriter to William Paterno, president of the council of the City of New York; (b) the kind of sexual appetites which have traditionally been a male prerogative—at least in literature, and (c) a difficult relationship with a gorgeous man who allows her to live with him, but considers marriage out of the question.

The story of Marcia Green is set against a background which is almost a genre by now—the comic Jewish family intent on pressuring her to stop fooling around with that gorgeous creep (needless to say, he's Irish Catholic), and settle down with a nice Jewish boy….

Isaacs deals with this situation with borscht-belt humor which borders on the manic…. She has a lively eye for detail and a tart descriptive style that make this same old story easy to read….

Although the story is punctuated with flashbacks describing a variety of workaday sexual encounters—he did this to me, he did that to me—Marcia's sexual attraction to the gorgeous Jerry Morrissey is both lyrical and funny. Her lust for him, described in language which limns the clichés of male lust, is sad (because you know he doesn't love her) and hilarious (because of Isaac's witty tone)….

She also succeeds in nailing...

(The entire section is 401 words.)

Katha Pollitt

You can't blame Susan Isaacs for not wanting to make her second novel Compromising Positions II, but I can't help it, I do. In Compromising Positions, a fed-up, witty, very likable suburban matron tracks down a killer and in the process discards her sexist husband in favor of a sexy cop. The result was a perfect read—it had romance, feminism, murder, and social satire—and since it came out, I've been waiting for a sequel, starring our heroine and her new love as the Nick and Nora Charles of Shorehaven, Long Island. This is not that book.

In Close Relations, Isaacs gives us another wisecracking, amiably neurotic heroine—Marcia Green, a 35-year old divorced speechwriter for a...

(The entire section is 544 words.)

Michiko Kakutani

[Susan Isaacs's literary models in "Almost Paradise"] appear to be Erich Segal, Judith Krantz and Janet Dailey. To be sure, she has some of their tricks down pat: she manages, in the course of the book, to range over some three generations and two continents, tangle her characters in lots of messy relationships and compromising positions, and for good measure, throw in some incest and a lengthy deathbed scene.

All this should make for fast, if not exactly edifying, reading, but it doesn't. The reader knows from the second page what is going to happen, and the only suspense that remains has to do with how many clichés Miss Isaacs can pack into the remaining 480-odd pages. The characters not only...

(The entire section is 232 words.)

Jonathan Yardley

Almost Paradise is a commercial novel with aspirations to be something more—aspirations that, unfortunately, it fails by a wide measure to fulfill. Susan Isaacs is an intelligent writer and a perceptive observer of social customs, and if you close your ears to the clanking machinery of her third novel you are likely to be diverted by it. But she wants to do more than provide a mere entertainment. She wants to make a Statement about marriage à la mode; the trouble is that the marriage around which the novel is constructed is so improbable, and the novel itself is so weighted down with the clichés of schlock fiction, that Isaacs' good intentions eventually get swallowed up in the fat pudding she has...

(The entire section is 908 words.)

Anna Shapiro

[If "Almost Paradise"] sounds a bit like a novel of domestic bliss, it is exactly that—for a time. This perfect world doesn't last, however; the serpent enters the garden in the form of family scandal, and bliss turns to crisis. Unfortunately, there is an unintentional split between social stereotypes throughout the book. Jane, her mother and the Jewish theatrical agent Murray King are vibrant wiseacres whose posturings only exaggerate their emotional nakedness, while their gentile counterparts (Nicholas and his family) are privileged drips. There are artistic problems with the book—a reliance on such conventional indicators as looks and money, a less than integral structure of events—but Miss Isaacs keeps the...

(The entire section is 142 words.)

Jane Oppenheim

[Almost Paradise] is a novel about a marriage, or about what becomes a "charade of marriage."

Jane Heissenhuber and Nicholas Cobleigh were of such diverse worlds that it is surprising they met at all, which they did as college seniors….

These two were different—in temperament, in interests, in background. Can there be happiness in "a marriage of opposites"? Can a woman give up dreams of her own career to nurture that of her husband? And can a marriage survive separate love affairs? If such questions start to sound like standard soap fare, Susan Isaacs' very direct style and sensitive writing come to the rescue. What she is saying often becomes less significant than how it...

(The entire section is 270 words.)