Howard, Maureen 1930–
Howard, an American novelist and autobiographer, uses polished and precise language to write of ordinary domestic life. Her autobiography, Facts of Life, explores many of the same themes that her earlier Bridgeport Bus had explored fictively. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56.)
The improbable heroine of [Bridgeport Bus] is a flat-chested, hawk-nosed, five-foot-eleven-inch, 35-year-old virgin from Bridgeport, Conn. Not surprisingly, she departs both from Bridgeport and virginity, but she is less interesting rather than more for having done so….
Pregnancy and death are not so terrible as dullness—in novels, anyway—and Mary Ag gets dull. The careful, tight writing gets loose, diffuse, and self-indulgent. Mary Ag keeps a journal, writes a play, records the irrelevant story of a wayward, show-girl cousin, as if she were filibustering and reading cookbooks into The Congressional Record. It is almost enough to make one forget the initial pleasure of meeting a finely drawn, amiable character with which the book began.
David R. Slavitt, "Running Out of Gas," in Book Week—New York Herald Tribune (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), October 3, 1965, p. 16.
Maureen Howard's Before My Time is not as good as it should be, and not as good as admirers of Bridgeport Bus had reason to hope, but it is in many places a very impressive work nonetheless. (p. 618)
When Howard is dealing with the Cogans of Bruckner Boulevard—mother Millie in a flashback as a stenographer, daughter, and lover, "failed" father Jack in a marvelous friendship with a retired Jewish millionaire, Siobhan and Cormac trying to settle in to an unoccupied highrise apartment—she is at her best, and that best is very good. But the major focus of the book is really on Millie's Boston cousin, Laura Quinn, discovering she is still before her time. Howard locates Laura's resentful but loving unfulfillment very well early on, but then sputters because the feeling itself does, and when Howard's pressure leads not to action but to repetition, the writing becomes less free, more insistent. One is tempted to say, simply, that Howard knows New York better than Boston, Catholics better than Protestants—and while that may be too simple, with her style she needs all the knowledge she can get to keep the action evolving out of the details. With Laura Quinn she either has the wrong kind of character for herself, or she doesn't know enough about her, and so, despite many brilliant passages, Before My Time disappoints as much as it satisfies. I hope she can go on to write My Time; it is the book no American woman has yet written, so far as I know, and no one is better equipped to write it than Maureen Howard. (p. 619)
Roger Sale, "The Realms of Gold," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1975 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, Winter, 1975–76, pp. 616-28.∗
My first impression of Facts of Life was of sheer novelistic skill, of so many stories, moods and time-shifts turning up in every chapter that it looked as if the author was stuck with a lot of effects that she couldn't unload in a novel. But it turned out to be a ruthlessly personal story told, like all good self-histories, to deliver the author from evil, to liberate her from some pressing burdens.
The fact that Maureen Howard doesn't seem much happier at the end of her brilliantly told story than she does at the beginning doesn't diminish her achievement. She is a dogged snipper of the human heart who, despite life with other breeds, retains a narrowly focused...
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Catholic suspicion of enthusiasm, especially her own…. Since it is easier to write a book than to liberate oneself from all pain, sin and error, it doesn't surprise me—though Maureen Howard's bitterness sometimes does jar me—that she communicates her stirring hatred of pretense and false gentility better than she does any great personal liberation. The style is very, very bright; the other characters are wonderfully alive; the suffering and resentment out of which the book was written stick to it like a burr.
The story is of an extremely perceptive but family-tied Irish Catholic girl in Bridgeport who realizes bit by bit … that the life to which she is submissive is full of lies, absurd ambitions, nonsense culture. (pp. 37-8)
Beyond Bridgeport and the academy, and just like them, only worse, was the great self-promotional world of American publishing. There is a description of a book-and-author luncheon … that makes one see in the clearest and most painful tones the utter contrast between the honest soul of Maureen Howard and the world we all have to live in. "There was something pure in the utter filth of the experience." If she has a "devastating" tongue and an obstinate "grudge," her book ends on a vision of herself at 23, about to get married and with perfect faith in her coming happiness, that turns the reader over. A painfully strong, good book. (p. 38)
Alfred Kazin, "Books Considered: 'Facts of Life'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1978 The New Republic, Inc.). Vol. 179, No. 11, September 9, 1978, pp. 37-8.
I can understand why a friend of mine groaned when I told him that Maureen Howard's reminiscences [in Facts of Life] centered on her childhood in Bridgeport, Connecticut: Life in that grim and prosaic city is a pretty daunting subject. But as readers of her novels know, Howard cannot be grim or prosaic for two seconds. (p. 43)
The facts of life, as Howard sees them, are three—culture, money, and sex—and how her parents shaped her adult attitudes in these matters is the central concern of these witty and vivid memoirs. But others also had their say, and Facts of Life is packed with sharply drawn sketches….
If Facts of Life has a flaw it is that it is not a novel. Howard's people have the vitality of fictional characters, and her efforts to use them to explain her own life sometimes diminishes them. A moving description of her mother's senility—surrounded in the end by the wealth she had rejected, Loretta washed dollar bills in the sink because they seemed so dirty—is followed by Howard's own confession that "I declare myself to be absolutely sane in the matter of paying bills." The central revelation of her memoir is not self-knowledge but a climax straight out of a novel: Her mismatched parents did indeed love each other, and the poverty in which they reared their children was a fantasy they had invented, two grownups playing house in the shadow of the mansion Loretta always knew would someday be hers. (p. 44)
Katha Pollitt, "Midlife Writing," in Saturday Review (© 1978 by Saturday Review Magazine Corp.; reprinted by permission), Vol. 5, No. 27, October 28, 1978, pp. 43-4.∗
Maureen Howard's "autobiography" is the work of a fine novelist…. She disclaims the title "memoir," and certainly this book has nothing in common with those memoirs that are part name-dropping and part narcissism. Facts of Life is a writer's notebook, a rich source of portraits any one of which might turn into a novel. Maureen Howard observes that "hindsight is common and bland as boiled potatoes," and perhaps it is only the true novelists who can cut through the barrier of "memoir" as she does. (p. 92)
Frances Taliaferro, "Books in Brief: 'Facts of Life'," in Harper's (copyright © 1978 by Harper's Magazine; all rights reserved; reprinted from the November, 1978 issue by special permission), Vol. 257, No. 1542, November, 1978, pp. 91-2.
[Facts of Life] weaves disparate parts into a surprising unity. Its style is excellent; its content, rather sad. It is often reminiscent of The Women's Room by Marilyn French—only this is for real. Its voids are the voids of French's novel: faith and lasting love….
Throughout the book the author shows a special gift for vividly depicting people. So expertly done is this, that much of the time they sound like people you might rather not know.
Howard has written a bitter book (with Hobbes-like tones—life is nasty, brutish), but not a complaining book. She has a curious kind of stoic courage, and wryness. Of her father she writes, "I learned more from his cruelty than from my mother's care."
The fact that Ms. Howard seemingly needed to purge herself of her pain does not mean that the reader will enjoy her exorcism.
"Books in Brief: 'Facts of Life'," in The Critic (© The Critic 1979; reprinted with the permission of the Thomas More Association, Chicago, Illinois), Vol. 37, No. 14, February 1, 1979, p. 8.