Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 590
The novel’s ironic title, Small Changes, indicates the nature of the action—small but often significant change taking place in the lives of most of the major characters. Although Piercy provides commentary on almost all the social and political concerns of the 1960’s and the 1970’s, she parallels the development of the two protagonists, Beth and Miriam, with the similarly erratic and often painful progress of the women’s movement.
The novel opens with the marriage of Beth Phail, a shy and seemingly conventional girl, to her high school sweetheart, Jim Walker. What society perceives as a beginning seems a dead end to Beth, so she runs away to find a more independent life in Boston. Although she must take unskilled and unsatisfying jobs, she slowly gains self-confidence and expands her network of friends. One of these friends is Miriam Berg, who eventually gets Beth a job as a keypunch operator at the computer corporation, Logical Systems Development, Inc., where Miriam works as a member of the technical staff.
Piercy then takes the reader back to another beginning in “The Book of Miriam,” which recounts Miriam’s unhappy childhood in Flatbush, Brooklyn, where she grew up feeling unloved and ugly. At college, however, she loses weight and gains her health. Her new sensuality is revealed and refined by a young poet named Phil, who is delighted to find her a virgin and “sexually, a tabula rasa.” Miriam’s connection to Phil as her lover, mentor, and best friend lasts throughout the novel. Phil’s friend and roommate, Jackson (both men are referred to by only one name), also becomes involved with Miriam, and at one point, the three of them live together in a fascinating but turbulent relationship.
The lives of Beth and Miriam touch and diverge often in the next few years. The third section of the novel, “Both in Turn,” sees Beth set back when her husband attempts to force her to return to the marriage she loathed. She runs away again and, after drifting for a while, returns to Boston and the women’s commune she has founded there. A divorce is arranged, and she immerses herself in the growing women’s movement. Having become briefly involved in a lesbian relationship before her return to Boston, she is confused about her “sexual identity” and remains celibate until she meets Wanda Rosario, the inspirational leader of a women’s theater group.
Miriam, meanwhile, has left Phil and Jackson in order to concentrate on her career. At Logical Systems Development, Inc., she meets Neil Stone, a serious, quiet man who is also her immediate supervisor. She marries him, satisfied that finally she has found the love and security for which she has yearned without compromising herself as a professional. Gradually, however, Miriam sees that as a woman, she is not welcome in her technical field; also, she begins to have serious moral reservations about the military applications of her work. Soon she succumbs to her husband’s pressure to have a baby, rationalizing that she can complete her doctoral dissertation while she is on maternity leave. Although she does eventually get her degree, the pressures of child rearing, her husband’s increasing demands, and her stagnating career take their toll. By the end of the novel, she has lost much of her vigor and intensity. Ironically, just as she resolves to do it all better, a new character is introduced, the other woman. Miriam’s husband is preparing to leave her for a woman more willing to please.