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Lynne Sharon Schwartz 1939–
American novelist, short story writer, and critic.
Schwartz's novels, which portray marriage and family in contemporary America, have attracted considerable critical attention. Her first novel, Rough Strife (1980), follows a married couple through the ups and downs of their twenty years together, ultimately presenting a positive view of the institution of marriage. Some critics asserted that Schwartz's characterizations and the quality of her prose were not sufficiently developed to sustain interest in a novel of such limited focus. However, most critics agreed that the novel revealed a notable perceptiveness and sensitivity to the nuances of love and marriage.
Like Rough Strife, Disturbances in the Field (1983) revolves around a married couple, Lydia and Victor, but in this later novel Schwartz's scope is much broader. The family tragedy that occurs midway through the novel adds a serious perspective to the dailiness of life. In addition, Schwartz writes about Lydia's friends, her childhood, and her profession, and includes discussions of philosophy. Balancing Acts (1981) deviates from Schwartz's other novels in subject matter, concentrating on a rebellious teenage girl and an equally rebellious elderly widower, whose interaction allows Schwartz to examine the experiences and problems of adolescence and old age.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 103.)
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In the last few years, in lives outside novels, things have slowly begun to change. Women have turned to men not as supports for weak egos and empty wallets, but as partners, equals, friends. Many found a life devoid of men and children lonely. The biological clock, which many women had turned to the wall, was running out; the revolutionaries were in their thirties and feeling panic.
In this context, it should come as no surprise that … [Rough Strife] should be touted as "deeply typical … the private history of a generation." Schwartz has written an American "Scenes from a Marriage." Without sentimentality or bitterness, the author traces the slow and subtle changes of a 20-year union between Caroline and Ivan, and it all rings true: the crises and dull spells, the falling in and out of love with the same person, the struggle of creating an enduring partnership….
While [Caroline] and Ivan like being together,… they are weighed down by the idea of marriage, by society's expectations, and by their own "vague constraint, like behaving well in school." (p. 37)
[They] conceive their first child after years of trying, just when the seams of the marriage are about to unravel. This fortuitous timing seems rather forced, exposing, I suspect, a splicing of the author's prizewinning, original short story, "Rough Strife" … with the novel she has constructed around it.
Slightly revised, the short story is a brilliant chapter on Caroline's first pregnancy. "No matter what I suffer," she thinks as she is rushed into delivery, "soon I will be thin again." You want to cheer and cry at the same time. But the following years of family life, and the birth of a second child, are boringly familiar and unfortunately uninspired. (Art mocks life here.)
Ivan settles into a peaceful domestic routine, working successfully, reading Wuthering Heights to their two daughters, cooking meals. But Caroline's life becomes more frenetic as she rushes from the university to the nursery school, to the kitchen, and to quickly consummated liaisons—she has no time. She is becoming Super Mom, and then collapses in anger and frustration into feminism. Ivan becomes her oppressor, "a natural enemy." (Her reaction is too sudden and extreme; he doesn't deserve it.) (pp. 37-8)
Caroline's feminism is the only false note in this otherwise sensitively written novel; it is shallow and shortlived, quickly done in by love. (The author writes better on love than on politics.) "The cause was just." Caroline bitterly comments, "but were their lives not their own, and a cause more just?"
What is one to make of this? Caroline's dilemma mirrors that of many women who see marriage and feminism as opposite, conflicting polarities; commitment to one means betrayal of the other. This thinking is based on two false premises: that feminism can cure all the problems of marriage and that a happy marriage obviates the need for feminism. In the best of all possible worlds, a peaceful, if uneasy, coexistence may be possible; but there are no easy solutions, in either marriage or politics. (p. 38)
Lore Dickstein, "A 20-Year Marriage In and Out of Love," in Ms., Vol. VIII, No. 12, June, 1980, pp. 37-8.
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For the upper-middle classes, it has been said, marriage is the only adventure left. This is a charming notion—a brave little bank of explorers set off two by two for the mysterious and uncharted coasts of intimacy, while friends and relations cheer and toss in the air their copies of Psychology Today—but it's also a little sad. Are there really no new worlds to conquer except the ones in the bedroom and the kitchen? Must one's energies be focused relentlessly inward, as though society at large had no use for them?
For Caroline and Ivan, whose 20-year marriage is the subject of this flawed but talented first novel ["Rough Strife"], the answer is yes. When we meet them, at 45 and 50, their lives are outwardly smooth, comfortable, conventional….
To each other, though, they are anything but ordinary. They are mythic figures, fated lovers like Catherine and Heathcliff: "There had been a quiver of recognition when they first met … not love at first sight, but bowing to destiny." And ever since destiny swept them to the altar, their marriage in all its parts—good, bad and indifferent—has been the one absorbing drama of their lives.
The irony behind the idea of marriage as middle-class adventure, though, is that everyone's adventure turns out to be the same—at least in novels. Caroline and Ivan see themselves as forging a new and original relationship, but they follow the broad cultural pattern of the last two-and-a-half decades as though it were a train schedule….
Lynne Sharon Schwartz registers the fluctuations of marital feeling with the fidelity of a Geiger counter. She understands the permanent resentments that can be mixed with love (Caroline thinks Ivan is arrogant, which he is; he thinks she is soppily emotional, which she is) and the alternating currents of weakness and strength that pass between two people whose lives are joined together. (p. 14)
About halfway through, though, my admiration for Miss Schwartz's gifts as a reporter of emotional weather turned to irritation at her lack of interest in anything else. Caroline and Ivan have no friends who count, just cardboard couples whose function is to demonstrate the varieties of marital failure. Caroline's lovers are cardboard too: sexual conveniences to her, narrative conveniences to us. Although we know she leads a full, busy life, we never see her in front of a classroom, on a demonstration, having lunch with her daughters, or buying a dress; and except for the occasional paragraph about math, all we overhear her thinking about is her marriage, her feelings, Ivan. After a while, this relentless focus begins to seem claustrophobic.
The problem is, the emotional dynamics of Caroline's marriage are not interesting enough to bear the close inspection Miss Schwartz bestows. In order to keep us reading, which she does, she is driven to blow every domestic event—a quarrel, a child's illness—into a full-scale melodrama and to inflate her language beyond proportion. Caroline doesn't just fall in love, she is "pierced by the cruel, mocking shafts of love." And 20 years later, the same overly heightened language is being lavished on trivia: "All winter through the grease fire in the oven, and the breakdown of the plumbing, through Greta's broken arm, her own bitter fight for the Women's Studies program, the theft of the Volvo—through all the abominations they had dreamed of a time alone." Abominations? A grease fire in the oven? It's enough to make one wonder if marriage is an adventure after all. (pp. 14, 22)
Katha Pollitt, "Twenty Years of Marriage," in The New York Times Book Review, June 15, 1980, pp. 14, 22.
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[In evaluating the literary merits of Rough Strife] I would submit the novel's first paragraph:
Wasn't it miraculous, that she could feel this way after so long? Desire, she meant, and its fulfillment. Ivan lay collapsed on her, slipping out in a protracted slowness. She made no effort to keep him. In a moment she would open her eyes to the bedroom ceiling, an off-white marked by grainy, old imperfections on the surface. She would repossess identity, a structure chiseled by circumstance. Till then she would yield to this larger existence: the breadth of oceans, the reach of continents! A dupe, of course, yet what a fine geographical extravaganza, sponsored by Ivan. Caroline smiled.
If the reader admires such prose the reader may well admire this novel. The reader may even find such writing spare, exacting, or gifted. I find it astonishing that a publisher might let such a paragraph go without copyediting.
Desire is not a way of feeling, nor is fulfillment. A dupe is a deceived person, not, as the construction indicates, a deception. Moreover, the second sentence indicates (she meant) that this rhetorical questioning is Caroline's; how then can she not yet be returned to her "identity"?… There are certain assumptions too that one might wish to question. For example, in what way has Ivan paid for—that is, sponsored—her seagoing voyage? Why should simple desire "after so long" be miraculous? When does "a slowness" become a protracted slowness? The definition slipped in of identity as a "structure chiseled by circumstance" is certainly disputable. None of these questions is answered in what follows, for none is intentional. (pp. 281-82)
As a portrait of a marriage Rough Strife is (not surprisingly) neither clearer nor more illuminating than the prose that renders it. A good deal is made of the opposing qualities, talents, and predilections of the partners. But I found myself continually trying to remember which qualities were supposed to be attributed to which, even at times referring to the dust jacket for the answer. (p. 282)
The marriage is presented as surviving for all of twenty years, despite the sort of differences in personality which the author finds consequential but I find negligible. (After all, they are not the same person—or are they?) The union weathers such crises as the birth of two children, a child's operation, one child's rather disruptive personality, numerous casual affairs (no confrontations, however, since none of these is revealed or discovered), the women's liberation movement, a few job changes, a few moves. Hardly rough strife. Instead, what we see is playful horsing around, the usual misunderstandings, evasions, and a good deal of what Caroline refers to as "lust." That they are so compatible sexually seems as reasonable a bond as any.
Ivan claims there is a "wildness" about Caroline that attracts and holds him. The quality, however, is never convincing. Characterization in this novel consists mostly of assertion. Caroline's favorite pastime seems to be reflecting on their varying personalities. The reason for this rehearsing may be that she has trouble (as I do) getting things straight. At the very end of the novel she congratulates herself on being "luckier" than Isabel Archer. (Caroline reads "Henry James and his more fey contemporaries," it is said, because they are "the perfect mental nourishment: pungent but safely digestible.") "The self-absorbed aesthete she had married was good, not evil." Yet the Ivan we have seen seems not particularly self-absorbed (he is much more attentive to the children than she is), and by no means an "aesthete." Caroline's problem seems to be that she thinks of fiction as a comment on her life.
There is no evidence that the author has a more comprehensive view of fiction. This is fiction as reportage; "safely digestible" it probably is. (pp. 282-83)
Georgia A. Brown, in a review of "Rough Strife," in The Yale Review, Vol. 70, No. 2, Winter, 1981, pp. 281-83.
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In this extremely likable novel [Balancing Acts] a retired acrobat captures the imagination and affections of a 13-year-old girl. During the uneven course of their relationship one of them learns to accept life and the other to relinquish it…. Each is looking for transcendence, a way to escape the law of gravity. What they find, as they jostle each other's lives, is a precarious sense of balance.
The novel is well-written, artfully constructed, and peopled with engaging characters, but it suffers from an excess of symmetry. Schwartz's first novel, Rough Strife—a fine anatomy of a marriage—was also about a kind of balance, but the author left the edges a bit rough, like marriage itself. In Balancing Acts, perhaps because the protagonists are more vulnerable, the effect is less abrasive, and the central metaphor is polished to an insistent shine. Like the grown man in the riddle of the sphinx, the book walks very nicely on two legs, but unlike the author's first novel, it seldom soars.
Judith Gies, in a review of "Balancing Acts," in Saturday Review, Vol. 8, No. 6, June, 1981, p. 54.
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Rough Strife is Lynne Sharon Schwartz's first book, and you can understand her thinking: enough of all the downbeat stuff, I'll have a go at the good news. But unaccompanied by zest and witty insight, marital contentment is full of dangers.
Miss Schwartz tells the long, dull story of the years of happy marriage between Ivan and Caroline…. They have their dreary downs and drearier ups, and still go on loving, wanting and needing each other. Which is fortunate, because it is unlikely anyone else would put up with either of them—a more deadly couple I've rarely met in fiction.
Indeed, there is only one lesson to be learned from their tale: if you want a happy marriage, call your loved one by his or her name constantly. Caroline and Ivan do so all the time, like characters in a Mike Leigh play gone mad—even when they are alone and could not possibly be addressing any other happily married character…. Miss Schwartz is apparently considered 'brainy' and 'deeply moving' by her American critics. I fail to agree with them: to me the only memorable part of the book was the shock of finding 'diaper' had become a verb. The dreadful Ivan 'diapered' the baby, thus becoming a 'true father'.
Angela Huth, "Marriage Matters," in The Listener, Vol. 106, No. 2721, August 6, 1981, p. 120.∗
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Not to beat about the bush; Balancing Acts is the best book through which I've browsed and burrowed for a long time. It has that beguiling simplicity of style which lets the reader rummage innocently in its pages, until, by some invisible and subtle act of stealth, it reaches in to give the heart a quick twist. Thereafter, the pages turn themselves, oblivious of fingers.
The plot pits its protagonists quickly together. Widower Max, a circus veteran in his seventies, has a rumpus with the rules in a respectable residence for the elderly. But his real war is waged upon the happy memories of his marriage, which threaten to overwhelm him. He volunteers his acrobatic skills to a local school, where his energetic antics enliven the schoolkids, amongst whom is Alison. Alison, thirteen, is lonely and rebellious like Max, frustrated by her friends and family, whose humdrum aspirations she despises….
For Alison, Max is like 'a messenger in a play who bursts in with news of the outside world', and he unwittingly catapults her fantasies into the circus's whirling world. She besieges her unwilling idol. But Max is treading a different tightrope, and his grudging admission of Alison to his privacy at 'Pleasure Knolls' is only because of Lettie, an ageing former chorus-girl with whom he has an unforeseen romance at the home. From warm, generous Lettie he is learning the lessons of old age; he has little time to teach a gauche young girl the tricks of his trade.
Lynne Sharon Schwartz handles the clash of Max and Alison beautifully, with one thumbing her nose at the conventions of adolescence, the other snubbing a senility into which he seems expected to lapse. The suburban American setting might offer a weaker writer the option of easy caricature; the story might easily succumb to sentiment. Both temptations, however, are wonderfully shrugged aside in Balancing Acts, and the result is a novel of impressive charm and friendly intelligence.
It comes as no surprise to find Alison reading The Member of the Wedding, since she is herself a modern Frankie, just as Lynne Sharon Schwartz has the skill of a Carson McCullers. (p. 22)
Bill Greenwell, "All the Fun of the Fair," in New Statesman, Vol. 103, No. 2660, March 12, 1982, pp. 22-3.∗
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Like Schwartz's fiction debut, Rough Strife, [Disturbances in the Field] is a model of emotional richness and pliability, with sunniness clouded by shared history … yet still surviving. And here once more (in contrast to her slight, disappointing second book, Balancing Acts), Schwartz is paying close attention to the subject-matter she illuminates so well, with such generosity: a marriage and a family. Victor Rowe, a painter, lives with wife Lydia and four children on New York's Upper West Side. We are drawn into their daily life, their recalled courtship at Columbia/Barnard in the 1950s, who their friends were and are. (Schwartz gives Lydia a nucleus of women friends who, over the years, have met to discuss Greek philosophy—as their lives, married or single, have become less and less hypothetical; it's a risky, lovely touch.)… Then, suddenly, there's a fracture. The two youngest children are killed in a ski-trip bus accident—and all comes tumbling down…. Schwartz gives Lydia's grief a texture of dailiness so well-modulated, within a society of sympathy (her friends gather around yet all are deficient), that it feels like the way people truly do mourn—through living it out, with the mind and the sorrow as two distinct reflections of the soul, moving side by side through time, each at its own pace. (For instance, Lydia thinks about the dead children only obliquely, just as a wound still seeping can't be directly prodded.) And if the reconciliative ending here, much like the one in Rough Strife, seems a bit willful, everything else in this novel comes across as the utterly honest weaving-together of natural serious feelings. Strangely comforting, solid and resonant: a quiet masterwork of late-20th-century American realism, fulfilling the great promise of Rough Strife.
A review of "Disturbances in the Field," in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LI, No. 13, July 1, 1983, p. 729.
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The triumph of Disturbances in the Field, Lynne Sharon Schwartz's luminous third novel, is that it faces the most relentless loss without sacrificing its humanity. Where our pain is beyond language, and perhaps beyond literature, Schwartz turns to music; the resulting symphony—like Schubert's "Trout" Quintet, the piece that more than any other reverberates through the book—offers "a sense of loss and nostalgia amid plenty, of death in the midst of fertility."… Disturbances in the Field creates … a balance, a harmony of ideas, despairing in order to affirm….
In many ways, the first half of Disturbances in the Field is a portrait of the good life as it might be lived by a certain kind of fortyish Upper West Side woman: a prefeminist intellectual who prefers philosophy to politics, introspective, talented, secure in a marriage so rewarding that she guards its secrets even from her closest friends. Lydia and her artist husband Victor, together since the days of college Chaucer, "felt born from the same soil, our cells interchangeable, and our love had the heady tingle of incest. Even to say I love you was a semantic error, too great a separation."
The college friendships with Gabrielle, Nina, and Esther … ripen and endure, though in middle age the passion for ideas gives way to other loves…. Images of Lydia's parents, who "carried so many heavy things in their arms" but "in time weakened and died"; of her ethereal sister Evelyn, who once loved to climb the dunes and now lives far away in the Swiss Alps; of the perfect rightness of one summer by the beach, weave in an intricate pattern through the scenes of adult life….
By the time Lydia has been married for 20 years, she is enveloped in a haze of peaceful permanence; her life seems "fulfilled and, in a way, over."… [Life], like that one summer by the beach, has achieved a condition of harmony "which though it partook so thoroughly of the natural cycles seemed utterly static and safe."
Nothing is ever static, of course; perhaps nothing is ever safe…. Alan and Vivian, those radiant children, are killed in a schoolbus accident, an icy skid and a burst of flames. The bereaved and unbelieving parents begin a long—probably endless—process of reconciliation, an agonized obsessive scrutiny of the details of their lives, these deaths…. The perfectly harmonious marriage, cells interchangeable, begins to disintegrate, in fire and in ice.
The death of a child may be our most terrible loss, the most difficult to accept…. It's a tribute to Schwartz's skill that she tells this story without melodrama or excess, that she never forgets the exuberance at the heart of poignancy. Nevertheless, the second half of Disturbances in the Field is weaker than the first, as if some of its light has been extinguished with the children's deaths….
What distinguishes Disturbances in the Field for me is the quality of its ideas, its insistence, as Lydia would say, on living the examined life. The power of the story is undeniable, but what makes this novel more than cathartic is its intellectual range and depth. Like the strains of Schubert's "Trout" or the music of the spheres, philosophical speculation informs Schwartz's work, providing counterpoint to the dailiness of life. Unlike Schwartz's critically acclaimed novel Rough Strife, which I found rather claustrophobic in its dissection of one long-standing marriage, Disturbances in the Field opens far beyond the story of Lydia and Victor Rowe. Even the long waiting for that possible day when "ordinary things would resume their rightful proportions and places in a universe of ordinary things"—that future when Lydia will "be able to look at a chartered bus without feeling sick"—takes a lesson from Thales, who measured the height of a pyramid by waiting "until that time of day when a man's shadow became equal to his height." The wonder, for Lydia, is in the waiting—and in the human figure as the measure of the universe.
If Schubert offers "death in the midst of fertility," this impressive novel celebrates fertility in the midst of death. "The unexamined life is not worth living," Victor would murmur to Lydia in the early days of their romance. "Impressive," she remarks years later, after fire and ice. "But is the examined one?"
That it is, and that we believe it, is Schwartz's simple gift to us.
Carol Sternhell, "Emotional Rescue; Simple Gifts from Lynne Sharon Schwartz," in VLS. No. 20, October, 1983, p. 10.
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It takes a long time to get to the good part in Lynne Sharon Schwartz's third novel, "Disturbances in the Field." One has to slog through a lot of adolescent talk, which led me to wonder whether anyone but the parents or peers of adolescents could find them consistently interesting. They try so very hard: even their ideas seem to be choked with hormonal changes, to have poor complexions….
In every college, there's a certain kind of student who insists on writing "lyrical" or "personal" term papers, trying to mix memory and desire with the curriculum. When this happens, the instructor is almost always embarrassed or frustrated, and this is how I felt much of the time while listening to Lydia, Nina, Gaby and Esther. All through the book I came across sentences beginning "Heraclitus was right," "The Greek atomist Leucippus believed," "I thought again of Empedocles" or "Grief, Aristotle wrote …"
There's a fortune-cookie quality to many of these quotations, a strenuous and uninspired reaching for analogy or metaphor. Even when the parallel works, it seemed to me like the undigested lessons of an intellectual nouveau riche. It's hard enough to keep the rather ordinary lives of these four women clear in one's mind without the intervention of Schopenhauer, Abelard and Heisenberg. In a true novel of ideas, all of these doctrines would have been implicit, for no character comes alive through a reading list. The very title of the book is a labored physics metaphor for human vicissitudes, which does nothing to explain or elevate them….
Twice we hear about the unexamined life's not being worth living, and I was reminded of Joseph Epstein's remark, in his recent book, "Middle of My Tether," that he's not so sure about the examined life either. What we need in novels is lived life, examined or unexamined. Miss Schwartz would do well to leave some of the philosophical correlations to the reader. Readers go to school, too.
But there are two sides to Miss Schwartz's book, two voices. Though Lydia ironically refers to the movement from "the cosmic to the personal" as a falling off, she is, like Antaeus, strongest when her feet are on the ground. When the two youngest children of Lydia and Victor are killed in a bus crash while on a skiing trip, she becomes a woman, wife and mother and puts off, at least part of the time, her perennial student persona.
At the end of "Disturbances in the Field," Lydia's voice comes from the center of herself. It goes beyond literature and philosophy to a tough, battered truth. Perhaps it is only when the truth of a situation is simple that the people involved in it are permitted to have complex responses. It's as if their feelings dance around the brute dilemma instead of expatiating on it….
The last part of "Disturbances in the Field" is so well written that it balances all the rest. Unfortunately, what that leaves us with is a dead heat.
Anatole Broyard, in a review of "Disturbances in the Field," in The New York Times, October 28, 1983, p. C28.
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Disturbances in the Field is just such a novel as Henry James would have approved, being not so much a story, moral or otherwise, as the execution of an entire, unique world out of a generous accumulation of detail, character, and incident. In its size and its freedom, it achieves the "immense and exquisite correspondence with life" that James maintained was the stuff and soul of fiction. It has the total quality of reality, in all its untidiness and muddlement and mulish resistance to logic and formula. It is a novel in which an intensely rich and complex scene radiates out from the hub of its subjective center.
It begins, like [James's Portrait of a Lady], from the premise that ordinariness is far more interesting than the exotic. Lydia Rowe introduces herself on the first page like this: "I was nearly forty-two and still seeking to understand." Presumptuous indeed, Lydia is not content merely to live—she wants to understand as well, and it is ultimately as a seeker of wisdom that she constitutes herself as a worthy Subject.
At forty-two, Lydia has it all, that is to say, everything the average middle-class American girl aspires to: a devoted husband, a rising career as a chamber musician, four beautiful children, and a close-knit group of loving friends. Her best friends—Nina, Gaby, and the formidable Esther—date from her Barnard years, where they first tasted the fruit of knowledge together in a philosophy survey course. (p. 601)
Schwartz traces the respective fates of the four friends from their undergraduate aspirations through the vicissitudes of young adulthood, as they marry, or don't, or survive divorce, take up careers or drop them, quarrel or make peace with aging parents, have or don't have children more by accident than by choice. Four well-delineated and familiar representatives of the restless sixties and confused seventies, they are distinguished primarily by their talk (for this is a novel full of good talk) and their collective inquiry into what any of this—career, marriage, maternity—has to do with philosophy.
They couldn't be further from the tired sensibility of Ann Beattie's emotional drifters, but they share the winter of her discontent. (pp. 601-02)
At the same time, if none of them is entirely content with her lot, their lives proceed out of their respective "essences," and The Philosophy Study Group sustains them, particularly by its Aristotelian article of faith that "a friend is another self." It's what they have, we expect them to say, instead. And up to a point, the novel functions partly as a Socratic disquisition, in that the characters within their dialogues can answer as well as ask questions about knowledge and ethics.
But then Schwartz tosses her heroine the ultimate question—the hard one by which Ivan Karamazov's cynicism prevails over his brother Alyosha's faith. In a freak accident, Lydia's two youngest, and most beloved, children are killed.
When Ivan presents his question—Why do the innocent suffer? Why do children die?—it is a splendid, fiery, awesome moment in fiction, such terrifying high tragedy that we end with a certain satisfied pride in our own intellect and humanity….
Schwartz underplays the situation, and brutally so. Already off-center in a chaotic, unsatisfactory world, Lydia now withdraws from feeling, becomes a frigid observer of the events around her. She cannot respond to her own tragedy, except by spraining an ankle, so she can relish the small physical pain that substitutes for the other one. She indicts her friends, accusing them of abandoning her in her hour of need. She loses her husband along with her will to live, and finally regains both by clinging tenaciously to the ancient, somewhat ragged shards of Philosophy 101. By the time we leave her, everything, and nothing, has happened to the presumptuous girl who sought the truth in philosophy and found her destiny in the lives, and deaths, of other people. If she has learned anything, it is only that no one has permission to go under, and seeking is its own business.
The triumph, if we want one, belongs not to her heroine but to the novelist herself, who transforms the life of her character and her bootless search for truth into the truth of that search. (p. 602)
It is precisely in all the "ado" of Disturbances in the Field—the swirl of events surrounding this one passionate, vital, intelligent but altogether ordinary individual and her insistence, to paraphrase James again, on mattering—that the novel finds its justification. If the novel cannot explain reality, it can nonetheless embody its frustrations and limitations. This is the beautiful neo-Platonic lie of fiction: like Lydia Rowe, we understand our lives only dimly and we despair, but through her, we know our condition. (pp. 602-03)
Carole Cook, in a review of "Disturbances in the Field," in Commonweal, Vol. CX, No. 19, November 4, 1983, pp. 590, 601-03.
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[Disturbances in the Field] is this quarter's entrant in the Domestic Realism Sweepstakes, Upper West Side Division, a long and messy book told in the first person by one Lydia Rowe, who at forty-two has four lovely children, a talented and successful husband, her own increasingly satisfying career as a chamber pianist, and a Volvo. She keeps up with her college friends, thinks about the pre-Socratic philosophers she read as a freshman at Barnard, and has settled comfortably into a present in which she believes she has attained the "placidity that comes with the relief of growing up and believing that nothing wonderful or terrible will ever happen to you again." So guess what happens in the next chapter? No, it's not as macabre as it was in The World According to Garp. The accident happens offstage, only two of her children are involved, and they even get to die instantly and presumably without pain. In the aftermath Lydia becomes cold and competent and inhuman…. No wonder Victor leaves her for "the embrace of some fat old mama." Schwartz's narrator is so would-be-ironical about fashionable "lifestyles"—and so completely a sucker for them. Lydia's college friend George, now a therapist, provides the novel's title. "Disturbances in the field" take place when "something gets between the expressed need on the one hand and the response on the other. So the need doesn't receive the proper response and the transaction remains unfinished." One part of life gets in the way of another. The death of her children interferes with her relationship with her husband.
Well, of course! But for Lydia the inescapable dangers of social life, not just in the extremity of a child's death but on an everyday basis as well, are shrouded by a vocabulary that is meant to express them but instead anesthetizes them. How do you "act out" your feelings about the death of a child? Lydia tries to be ironic about the psycho-babble, but really, what does Victor's sexiness have to do with his feelings about the death of his children? And Schwartz's own irony fails as well; she too is a prisoner of George's terminology. Her fundamental problem, which she shares with most American novelists-of-manners, is that her work is born of a psychological comfort that it never quite manages to criticize. It comes from a world in which people assume that self-fulfillment is a right rather than the product of luck and privilege, assume that life should work the way in which they want it to, and look to terms like George's to fix things up when it doesn't. That world is so fundamentally safe that, once having accepted its terms in the slightest degree, a writer has to become sensational in order to evoke a situation for which those terms are patently inadequate. I'd rather read Barbara Pym. (pp. 159-60)
Michael Gorra, "Laughter and Bloodshed," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXXVII, No. 1, Spring, 1984, pp. 151-64.∗
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