Biography

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 780

The only daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning short story writer and novelist John Cheever and teacher Mary Winternitz, Susan Cheever eased herself slowly into becoming a writer. After graduating from preparatory schools and Brown University, she held various teaching, reportorial, and editorial positions. She eventually became a writer at Newsweek, remaining there from 1974 to 1979, her longest stint in any full-time position. By 1979 she had decided that, despite her confession of an earlier distaste for writing, she wanted to write something entirely her own rather than “dealing with other people’s fact.”

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Susan Cheever’s early novels were generally considered unexceptional, primarily because of the lack of adequate characterization rather than her use of language, which tended to earn higher marks. Essentially, she was interested in exploring the lives of modern women dissatisfied with their marriages and careers and searching for something more meaningful.

In Looking for Work, Cheever’s first book (which she characterized as “straight autobiographical”), the heroine, Salley Gardens, is an upper-middle-class brat who marries, mistakenly assuming that she can and should find meaning in her life by helping her husband live his. Soon she tires of marriage and has an affair with a sculptor, but she eventually leaves him as well so that she can become a writer at Newsweek.

In A Handsome Man, which Cheever called a “narrative biographical” work, the thirty-two-year-old divorced Hannah Bart falls in love with a respectable, divorced fifty-year-old publisher. The twosome, together with the man’s estranged young son, take a trip to Ireland, where the woman tries to reconcile father and offspring. She fails, but the “handsome man” marries her because he feels grateful to her and because, as he explains, he has learned so much from her. Cheever’s descriptions of Irish history, legend, and scenery, as well as her vignettes of individuals from various walks of Irish life, relieve somewhat repetitive passages about eating, sleeping, quarrelling, and changing clothes.

The Cage, about a couple being metaphorically trapped in their failed marriage, has greater depth and better characterization. But it was unquestionably with Home Before Dark, Susan Cheever’s candid but compassionate biography of her father, published two years after his death, that the younger Cheever came into her own, for now she was writing straight from the heart. This nonfiction memoir of John Cheever’s life, sickness, and death draws extensively not only on Susan Cheever’s log but also—and perhaps especially—on the famous writer’s thirty-volume private journals covering several decades. The result is a moving profile of him as a man, father, and author. Along the way, Susan Cheever provides stunningly frank revelations of her parents’ turbulent marriage, her father’s addiction to alcohol, and his confused bisexuality.

A subsequent novel, Doctors and Women, focuses on the relationship between physicians and their cancer patients (her father had died from the illness). In a 1987 interview, Cheever stated that she observed physicians closely for a year—watching them work, and at times visiting their homes—before fictionalizing what she had seen. After the publication of Elizabeth Cole in 1989, Cheever wrote another family biography, which appeared in 1991: Treetops: A Family Memoir. This time she concentrates, though not entirely, on her mother’s lineage, profiling Mary Winternitz Cheever as striving to develop her husband’s gifts rather than discovering her own and as willing to fight for her husband as fiercely as she fought with him. In 1994 Susan Cheever published a well-researched book on a typical female baby-boomer, entitled A Woman’s Life: The Story of an Ordinary American and Her Extraordinary Generation. It is a study of one woman who conforms to the “average” in Cheever’s own age group. Cheever attempts to interpret a generation by tracking the life of Linda Green Donahue, a high-school Spanish teacher living in Maine; she is the mother of two, a wife, and an involved citizen.

In the 1990’s Cheever also wrote a series of articles, mostly in Architectural Digest, about the homes of the rich and the famous. For example, in the April, 1995, issue of that magazine she discusses author Isabel Allende’s suburban home in California. Cheever has also written book reviews and other pieces. In an article in The New Yorker called “The Nanny Track,” she profiled the nanny who took care of her two children for a few years. She also wrote a piece on the subject of aging, published in February, 1995, that discussed actors Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Her 1999 memoir Note in a Bottle recounts her own difficulties as a sexually promiscuous alcoholic, and As Good as I Could Be is a collection of her columns from Newsday newspaper on her experiences raising her children.

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