In her much-admired novel of World War II, Gone to Soldiers (1987), Marge Piercy sought to recapture the spirit of a past era by describing the lives of ten individuals. The Longings of Women is not as long or as complex as the earlier book, nor is it historical in nature. Piercy’s method, however, is much the same. In this work she follows three women through a critical period in their lives, as they try to find happiness that does not depend upon the love or approval of men.
Leila Landsman is a forty-five-year-old sociology professor at a college in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Although she is the primary breadwinner of the family, throughout the twenty-four years of their marriage she has been subservient to her husband, Nick, who directs plays at regional theaters and occasionally picks up additional money by teaching. From the beginning, Nick has insisted on having his sexual freedom, and Leila has settled for whatever attention he chooses to give her. Now, with her only child in college in California and her best friend dying of cancer, Leila needs the kind of support from her husband that she has always been only too happy to give him. Nick is too busy with a play opening in New York and, even more important, with his affair with one of the young actresses. When Leila sees how Nick has failed her, she is at first devastated. Then she begins to reassess her life.
Piercy’s second protagonist, Mary Ferguson Burke, long ago gave up not only on her husband but on her children as well. Once Mary had been a suburban housewife, married to a prominent and prosperous geologist. When she was forty-five, her husband left her for another woman. Though she had a college degree, Mary was not really prepared to earn enough to support herself. When she was evicted from her apartment, she lost what little she had left. Although she finally found a job working for a cleaning service, she cannot afford to pay rent. At sixty, she spends her nights in airports, laundromats, church basements, or unlocked garages. She is too proud to admit the truth to her two married children, who answer her occasional pleas for money with descriptions of their own minor financial difficulties, and she is too canny to let her various “ladies” know that she is living in the streets, for their revulsion toward the homeless would result in her immediate dismissal. Mary looks forward to nights and weekends when her employers are out of town, for then she can move into their homes to bathe, eat, and sleep in comfort. Yet Mary never forgets that these pleasures, like everything else about her life, are merely temporary. When the worst happens and she becomes ill, she has to face the fact that unless she finds a home, she will die.
Unlike Leila and Mary, who devoted themselves to pleasing men only to be betrayed by them, it takes only one experience of being used to persuade Becky Souza Burgess that it was wiser to use men than to be used by them. Although she likes Terrence Burgess, Becky does not love him. Nevertheless, after maneuvering him into marriage, Becky makes her husband’s happiness her first priority. Only when he loses his job and refuses to get another, so that she must supply his every need while he sleeps in front of the television or sneaks out to date other women, does Becky decide that he is worth more dead than alive. At the beginning of the novel, Becky has been arrested for killing Terrence with the help of Sam Solomon, a seventeen-year-old high school senior whom she has seduced for the purpose.
Even though one may understand why Becky is angry, it is difficult to think of her as a victim. In one way, however, she is not unlike Leila and Mary. Again, a woman is betrayed by a man—or, in her case, by two men: first Terrence, who was too self-centered to give her the affection she craved, then Sam, who, however unintentionally, led the police to her by being too frugal or too stupid to jettison the television and the videocassette recorder supposedly stolen by Terrence’s unknown killer. Admittedly, Becky is a cold-blooded murderer; admittedly, by her actions she destroys the lives of two men. Yet like Leila and Mary, she is also the victim of social assumptions about gender. If her initial mistake is the result of trusting a man with her life, her second error is shocking society by behaving like a man. To her surprise, Becky finds the jury unsympathetic, not primarily because of her deviousness or her brutality but because, as a female, she demonstrated the predatory behavior that society expects and encourages only in males. By crossing the gender line, Becky has made her conviction inevitable.
In The Longings of Women, Marge Piercy again demonstrates her mastery of technique. For example, throughout the novel she uses third-person narration, but by focusing on only one protagonist in each chapter, she achieves an effect of immediacy that is ordinarily found in stories told in the first person. Moreover, although the events that take place during the course of the novel are related in chronological order, with the exception of thoughts and memories, in fact Piercy...