Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 991
Susan Cheever's novel, Looking for Work,… belongs to a tradition of realism which sets itself the task of illuminating the way we all live now. Moreover, Cheever's novel is an attractive contribution to what we have begun to recognize as a female realistic style in which brand names, store names, and restaurant names—Cosmopolitan, Saks, Cartier, Tiffany, Erno Laslo, Johnny Walker Red—serve as objective correlatives and mark the limits of the characters' lives. Following the trends of the recent social novel, Cheever gives us the de rigueur contrasts of New York and California, adding to these mythologies acute observations and quick delineations of difference. She provides the psychiatrist scenes … without which no female bildungsroman can be convincing. But Cheever is really a stronger writer than the use of such devices would imply. She plays with style, abruptly changing pace, mood, and vision. She is capable of intimate, wry commentary and of showy descriptions of events as scenes from movies. An entire chapter which takes place at the shore is life as if in one of those gauzy-lensed deodorant commercials, reminding us that we tend to see ourselves in the idioms that movies and television have provided. Scenes of happiness—the only happy time of Salley's marriage to Jason—must be remembered as slow-motion running on a beach. These movie devices—and as one reads, one looks forward to the movie version—are fluent and gently revealing. In the gentleness we see what makes this novel different from many of the others about woman's fate in the world today. Cheever's very real accomplishment in Looking for Work is the vividness with which she has observed the familiar plight of her heroine and the gentle affection with which she draws her cast of characters. She has avoided turning her characters into parodies; her belief in her characters allows us to believe in them and to care about their predicaments.
When we first meet Salley, the child of privilege, she is falling into marriage with Jason, a writer-editor and the son of family friends. The courtship and living-together part of Salley and Jason's relationship is imbued with uncertainty…. The rest of the marriage—six years' worth—is the tale of how Salley extricates herself from Jason and how she gains some confidence of her own.
Here we come to the supposed focus of the novel: work. It used to be that women's fiction concentrated on the search for love, marriage and eternal happiness. Jane Austen's wonderful novels are still immensely popular with "liberated women" because in the end they always deliver eternal married bliss. Looking for Work shows the transmutation or displacement of values which women have experienced in the last decade or so. Cheever tells us that love, marriage, and even sex no longer have the redemptive qualities so widely advertised in popular culture, common sense, and our own psyches. To be sure, love is still nice, and ideally no woman should be without the love of a good man. Salley's passionate, loving affair with Max Angelo, the famous and sophisticated sculptor, shows us that Salley has what it takes to stand up to men. She can hold her own in bed and in conversation with interesting men. From Max she learns that she can be more than a housewife, but she also learns that Max needs her to be the assured part of the partnership, and this means giving up a budding career in New York to go to California to be with Max. Suddenly, she knows that she can't live through a man. She learns that if you are a strong, intelligent, and self-respecting woman, love is not all you need. You also need work.
Thus, at several points throughout this novel, Salley sends out résumés and goes to interviews. Not surprisingly, Salley receives no job offers and spends most of her time reading novels, musing, and not vacuuming her apartment…. For long stretches of the book Salley is as boring and as irritating a character as recent fiction has produced. When Salley asks about herself, "If she is so unhappy, why doesn't she get off her ass and do something about it?", we want to applaud. Still, for many chapters we have to suffer Salley's malaise and inertia.
I think Cheever is trying to show us the result of the pressures put on women to be superwomen who succeed at love, marriage, child-rearing, and work. For years to come, psychologists and sociologists will probably discuss the conflicts and muddles that changing expectations have put on the female American psyche. This cultural phenomenon is genuinely compelling. And as we wait for the expert opinions on the superwomen of the seventies and eighties, we can read Looking for Work as an important analysis of the contemporary female psyche.
Yet for all of her powers of analysis and characterization, Cheever has somehow let us down. If her book is disappointing in the end, it is because we have become impatient with Salley Gardens's dumbness. To be sure, she lands on her own two feet in the end—but despite herself. Her deus ex machina job and promotion at Newsweek, symbolizing—finally—a recognition of her intelligence and endurance, does not impress us as much as it does Salley herself…. Salley, in escaping mundane housewifery, the "burden" of babies, and the compromises of love, has fallen into a chic contemporaneity which Cheever doesn't convince us offers more. (pp. 410-11)
Salley Gardens has engaged our affection. We believe in her because her conflicts are real. We want her to succeed and be happy. Our irritation is thus an accolade to the writer who has created such a character and caused us to care about her like an old college roommate or an old, dear friend. (p. 411)
Cheryl Rivers, "Working It Out," in Commonweal (copyright © 1980 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. CVII, No. 13, July 4, 1980, pp. 410-11.
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