Susan Minot Minot, Susan - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Susan Minot 1956-

American novelist, short story writer, poet, and screenwriter.

The following entry presents an overview of Minot's career through 2002. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 44.

With the publication of her debut novel, Monkeys (1986), Minot attracted critical acclaim as a promising new author whose spare, evocative prose and multi-textured observations signaled her impressive talent. Regarded as a skilled stylist, Minot has applied her minimalist prose to incisive examinations of love, death, and sexual intimacy—particularly as experienced by discontented women whose emotional lives are severely circumscribed by social convention and unsatisfying relationships. While Monkeys relates the troubled dynamics of a large, upper-class Boston family, Minot's subsequent fiction, including the novels Folly (1992) and Evening (1998), the short story collection Lust and Other Stories (1989), and the novella Rapture (2002), centers upon women disappointed with love.

Biographical Information

Born in Manchester, Massachusetts, Minot was raised near Boston with her six siblings in a Roman Catholic family. After attending Concord Academy, a selective preparatory school, Minot first enrolled at Boston University, then transferred to Brown University, from which she received a bachelor's degree in creative writing in 1978. While a senior at Brown, Minot lost her mother in a car accident, a crisis that she revisited in the partly autobiographical novel Monkeys. After returning home to care for her father and younger sister, Minot eventually moved to New York, where she earned a master of fine arts in creative writing at Columbia University in 1983. Minot briefly worked as an editorial assistant for the New York Review of Books in 1981, before working as an assistant editor for Grand Street from 1982 to 1986. She also taught writing workshops at Columbia and New York University during the 1980s. Minot's first short stories, published in Grand Street and The New Yorker, were later incorporated into Monkeys, which earned Minot wide recognition and the Prix Femina award in 1988. After publishing a collection of short stories and a second novel, Minot worked on the screenplay for Stealing Beauty (1996), a film starring Liv Tyler and directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. Minot married Davis McHenry, a filmmaker, in 1988; they have since separated.

Major Works

Minot's first novel, Monkeys, depicts episodes in the lives of the Vincents, a large Irish Catholic family from Boston, not unlike Minot's own. Constructed as nine vignettes detailing particular events in the family's history between 1966 and 1979, Monkeys shifts its point of view among the Vincent children, but is mainly told from the perspective of the second oldest daughter, Sophie. Throughout various family experiences, including Thanksgiving dinners, summer vacations, and Christmas mornings, the children enjoy the charm of their vivacious and loving mother and, with her, suffer the harmful effects of their father's alcoholism. The novel follows the siblings' development into adulthood, a process hindered by their sometimes immoderate reliance upon one another but eventually quickened by the untimely demise of Mrs. Vincent in a car accident. When she dies, the family hovers aimlessly around an empty center. Rather than describe the Vincents' emotional loss, Minot documented their grief through small but charged symbols, as, for instance, the details of attending church on the first Christmas after their mother's death. The cumulative effect of such minutia is a holistic disintegration of the Vincent children's world. Without their mother to impart the trivia of family convention with love, the siblings are bereft, and the loss of their mother functions as a loss of faith altogether. At the end of Monkeys, the siblings come to terms with their mother's death and bravely take turns throwing her ashes into the sea. Lust and Other Stories features young, intelligent professional women who cannot find love that fulfills both their independence and desire for romance, putting them at odds with an older generation's conventions of love (sexual coyness and sentimentality) and a modern one's independence (carefree romance and professional achievement). The twelve stories depict heterosexual relationships among chic New Yorkers that dissolve due to the emotional disparity between their male and female characters. The female narrators express feelings of sexual ambivalence and dissatisfaction by a lack of intimacy with their male counterparts, who are generally described as insensitive and noncommittal. The brevity and often painfully detached dialogue of Minot's impressionistic stories underscore the sense of emptiness that pervades the lives of these women. In Folly, Minot moves backward in time, documenting upper-class Boston between the two World Wars. The central figure is Lilian Eliot, the daughter of an affluent family whose good fortune does not include familial affection. At the beginning of the novel, Lilian meets a dashing New Yorker, Walter Vail, whose boldness provokes discomfort in Lilian's exclusive Boston circle. Despite his charm, Walter proves unreliable. He leaves for the war, and over the next twenty years Lilian only sees him occasionally. As she seeks intimacy and spontaneity in a culture seemingly designed to exclude both, Lilian finally resigns herself to convention and marries Gilbert Finch, a dour and soft-spoken man with whom she has three children and a busy, if empty, life as a Boston matron. Lilian's frustration with her life is only semi-conscious, which implies not that she lacks perception, but that she limits it out of self-protection. She senses that those who escape the conformity of upper-class Boston, like her eccentric Aunt Tizzy—a single woman who lives in New York—suffer the curse of isolation more than they benefit from their hard-won freedoms. Gilbert's clinical depression, which leads him to an institutional “rest cure” in the English countryside, serves to affirm the respectable, but boring and confining existence of his social class. Evening recounts the life of Ann Lord as she lies on her deathbed, straying between consciousness, dreams, and memory. As her memories reveal, her emotional life has been shaped by an event that occurred decades earlier, when Ann attended a wedding in coastal Maine. There she meets Harris Arden, a doctor from Chicago, and falls in love. The heedless and overdetermining nature of their affair—despite its brevity and the fact that Harris is already engaged—stands in contrast to the polite society in which the meeting and the wedding take place. Minot emphasizes the visceral and even violent quality of love, situating the affair within a world restrained by decorum. The romance cannot, and does not, last, and afterward, Ann's life follows a somewhat aimless course leading to three husbands and five children, none of whom understand their wife or mother with anywhere near the intensity and passion of Harris Arden. Minot skillfully arranges Ann's life around the abbreviated romance that eclipses the story at hand—Ann's painful death from cancer. For Ann Lord, marriages, children, and death cannot compete with a thwarted four-day romance when it comes to defining her life. The novella Rapture explores the physical and emotional longings that compel a three-year affair between Kay Bailey, a film production designer, and Benjamin Young, a filmmaker with a long-time girlfriend. Several years after breaking off the affair, Kay and Benjamin rejoin for an afternoon of inconsequential lovemaking. The narrative revolves around a single act of sexual engagement, during which, through alternating interior monologues, the lovers reflect on their separate motivations and private expectations.

Critical Reception

Critics have frequently commented on Minot's literary style, which they have described as a combination of postmodern minimalism and Victorian realism that marries the romantic themes and upper-class settings of the latter with the precise language and feminist tones of the former. Although Minot's writings have inspired a range of critical reactions, most reviewers have enthusiastically praised Monkeys as a sophisticated and original debut effort, with many applauding its realistic characterizations and keen observations of childhood. However, the critical response to Minot's subsequent works—with the exceptions of Folly and Evening—has been less fervent. Drawing thematic comparisons to the fiction of Lorrie Moore and Melissa Banks, critics have generally found that Minot's female characters in Lust and Other Stories are weak and naïve, finding them to be throwbacks to earlier literary representations of women. While Folly and Evening have renewed Minot's reputation as an important young novelist, most commentators have dismissed Stealing Beauty and Rapture as trite and superficial works. Much of the criticism of Minot's work has focused on her subtle feminist perspective, with critics praising her minimalist style by which she underscores the limited choices available to contemporary women and the dearth of emotionally responsive men. At the same time, some reviewers have criticized Minot for not developing her male characters, who are often portrayed as little more than shallow caricatures. Some critics have also deemed her work depressing and hopeless, often citing Minot's exacting descriptions of unhappy love affairs. According to Minot, “there' more fictional material in unhappiness and disappointment and frustration than there is in happiness”—an observation that places Minot with the purview of early-twentieth century novelist Edith Wharton. Minot has often been compared to Wharton for creating similarly detached but insightful portraits of proper New Englanders that reveal the ways conventional behavior obscures the better instincts of humans. Reviewers have also favorably noted Minot's ability to construct her characters through a subtle accumulation of details that initially seem insignificant, but eventually unite to create fully realized characters.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Monkeys (novel) 1986

Lust and Other Stories (short stories) 1989

Folly (novel) 1992

*Stealing Beauty (screenplay) 1996

Evening (novel) 1998

Rapture (novella) 2002

Poems 4 A.M. (poetry) 2002

*The screenplay was based on a story by Bernardo Bertolucci.

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Sara Maitland (review date 29 August 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Maitland, Sara. “Small Worlds.” New Statesman 112, no. 2892 (29 August 1986): 25.

[In the following excerpt, Maitland examines the weaknesses of Monkeys, noting that the novel lacks substance.]

Perhaps I am getting old; surely when I started reviewing, ‘first novels’ meant a wrestling match with cosmic themes, images and politics—too often loosely written and formally over-ambitious? Judging from the dozen I have just finished reading, times have changed. First novels now are elegantly crafted, dedicatedly edited, finely written things—unfortunately they are not about anything.

Take Susan Minot's Monkeys, for...

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Karen Sue Smith (review date 24 October 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Smith, Karen Sue. Review of Monkeys, by Susan Minot. Commonweal 113, no. 18 (24 October 1986): 572–73.

[In the following positive review, Smith comments on the themes, characters, and moods in Monkeys.]

Only the first story, not chapter really, is told by Sophie, one of the seven Vincent children [in Monkeys]. But the eight other skillfully crafted episodes continue to exhibit a child's-eye view of thirteen years of family life. In lean prose, Susan Minot conveys the intimacies and estrangements that suffuse this world of family.

Events unfold naturally—against a New England setting, with a Harvard connection influencing...

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Robley Wilson (review date winter 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wilson, Robley. Review of Lust and Other Stories, by Susan Minot. Georgia Review 43, no. 4 (winter 1989): 829–30.

[In the following review, Wilson examines the ultra-fictional qualities of Lust and Other Stories.]

Among other things, Susan Minot's Lust and Other Stories reminds us that New York City is a fictional construct, a cardboard world of parochial celebrity assembled tab-and-slot by such artificers as the Hearst Empire, Condé Nast, and S. I. Newhouse, and exhibited to the real world by the likes of Esquire, Vanity Fair, and the new (alas) New Yorker. This being so, it seems to me that a lot of New York reviewers...

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Madeleine Blais (review date 11 June 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Blais, Madeleine. “The Sly, Sexy Minimalism of Susan Minot's Lust.Chicago Tribune Books (11 June 1989): 7.

[In the following review, Blais assesses the effectiveness of the minimalist style of Lust and Other Stories.]

Three years ago, Susan Minot's short, beautiful first novel, Monkeys, established its author as a contemporary voice to reckon with. Although Monkeys had some of the trappings of literary chic—a bare bones, minimalist style and the use of the present tense to describe events that clearly occurred long ago—the book transcended its own trendiness.

Using her trademark style of calm poetry and chiseled...

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Richard Eder (review date 25 June 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “‘It Was Great, and Don't Call Me, I'll Call You.’” Los Angeles Times Book Review (25 June 1989): 3.

[In the following mixed review, Eder praises Minot's skillful prose, but finds Lust and Other Stories repetitious, distant, and thematically limited.]

For Susan Minot's young women, entreaty is a one-way street. Men entreat them meltingly.

They look at you seriously, their eyes at a low burn and their hands no matter what starting off shy and with such a gentle touch that the only thing you can do is take that tenderness and let yourself be swept away.


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Stephen Wall (review date 22 February 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wall, Stephen. “Asking Too Much.” London Review of Books 12, no. 4 (22 February 1990): 20–22.

[In the following excerpt, Wall explores Minot's motivations behind her minimalist techniques in Lust and Other Stories.]

Susan Minot's volume [Lust and Other Stories] is a slim one, and some of the pieces in it will not placate those who complain that short stories are too often too short, rather as one might hold it against the sonnet that it's over after only 14 lines. Brevity can be the soul of more qualities than wit, and it would be a dim view of Webern to say that he lacks Schubert's heavenly length. It's true that minimalism has its own lacunal...

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Sean French (review date 2 March 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: French, Sean. “Culture Clashes, Sex Wars.” New Statesman & Society 3, no. 90 (2 March 1990): 33.

[In the following excerpt, French examines the theme and tone of Lust and Other Stories, praising the collection's subject matter, but questioning its sense of decorum.]

It's virtually impossible for a true writer to believe in cultural purity. Meetings and minglings of religion and race are simply too good a subject. Henry V isn't in the end a jingoistic play because Shakespeare enjoys too much the promiscuous play between English, French and the different British dialects. George Orwell noted that Kipling was distrusted by the English...

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Andy Solomon (review date 18 October 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Solomon, Andy. “Susan Minot Depicts a Bostonian's Petrified Passions.” Chicago Tribune Books (18 October 1992): 3.

[In the following review, Solomon praises the characterization, narrative tension, and successful evocation of setting in Folly.]

When Susan Minot's debut novel-in-vignettes, Monkeys, appeared six years ago, critics compared its then under-30 author to Salinger, Faulkner, John Irving, Evelyn Waugh, Updike, Virginia Woolf and Louise Erdrich. All this on the basis of 159 pages. Now, after the slight step backward of her bleak 1989 collection Lust and Other Stories, Minot offers her first organically unified novel [Folly]. It...

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Richard Eder (review date 22 October 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “A Tide in the Affairs of Women Plays Out.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (22 October 1992): 4.

[In the following review, Eder offers a negative assessment of Folly, calling the novel underdeveloped and predictable.]

In Monkeys, her splendid first novel, Susan Minot placed a large and troubled family upon a grid of near and remote radio signals. The children received each tremor, damage and approaching disaster, sometimes clearly and sometimes in a cloudy displacement of frequencies.

In the short stories of the less successful Lust, it was not children receiving and decoding, but young women out in the...

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Penelope Rowlands (review date 25 October 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rowlands, Penelope. “A Gentle Defiance.” San Francisco Chronicle (25 October 1992): Sunday Review section, p. 3.

[In the following positive review, Rowlands commends the complexity of the protagonist in Folly.]

Set in Boston before World War I, Susan Minot's new novel offers a haunting perspective, not only on an earlier generation, but on our own era as well.

The protagonist of Folly is a proper Bostonian named Lilian Eliot. Like every other woman of her class and generation, Lilian has a predictable and clear future. She will marry—suitably, of course—and have children. To fail at this mandate would be inconceivable. The life...

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Merle Rubin (review date 10 November 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rubin, Merle. “Old-Fashioned Fiction, by Design.” Christian Science Monitor (10 November 1992): 13.

[In the following review, Rubin examines the structure of Folly, crediting the novel's protagonist for the work's “universal” relevance.]

At a time when many novelists, like filmmakers and rock stars, vie to outdo one another in displays of graphic violence, sexual exploitation, and other shock tactics, there is something refreshing—even daring—about a novel that whisks readers back to the discreet and decorous world of Bostonian high society on the eve of the United States entry into World War I.

Susan Minot's Folly,...

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Marcelle Thiebaux (essay date 16 November 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Thiebaux, Marcelle. “Susan Minot: Understatement is the Novelist's Preference, in Her Writing as Well as in Her Conversation.” Publishers Weekly 239, no. 50 (16 November 1992): 42–43.

[In the following essay, Thiebaux provides an overview of Minot's life and work, based on an interview with Minot upon the publication of Folly.]

Understatement is the novelist's preference, in her writing as well as in her conversation

Susan Minot meets PW in a friend's apartment in Greenwich Village while her own newly purchased condo, directly overhead, is being renovated. “It's completely gutted,” she remarks cheerily, oblivious of the wild...

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Pearl K. Bell (review date winter 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bell, Pearl K. “Fiction Chronicle.” Partisan Review 40, no. 1 (winter 1993): 63–77.

[In the following excerpt, Bell offers a mixed assessment of Folly, praising Minot's virtuosity, but finding fault with the novel's circumscribed milieu and idiom.]

Somewhere in his journals, George Orwell recalls a packet of books he was once asked to review for a London weekly. One was a novel set in Indochina, the other a study of eighteenth-century British agriculture, and in a covering note the editor had written: “These should go well together.” A donnish joke, and probably apocryphal, but the anecdote comes to mind whenever I must pick and choose for a...

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Gary Davenport (review date spring 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Davenport, Gary. “True Merchants of the Untrue.” Sewanee Review 101, no. 2 (spring 1993): 300–07.

[In the following excerpt, Davenport explores the narrative significance of historical context in Folly.]

In 1850 Alessandro Manzoni published an essay called Del romanzo storico (it first appeared in English in 1984 as On the Historical Novel). Nineteenth-century admirers of historical fiction who read that essay must have been disheartened when the author of I promessi sposi declared the genre hopelessly unworkable, declaring that faithfulness to history and freedom of invention are inherently contradictory principles. Naive as this...

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Anne Duchêne (review date 23 April 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Duchêne, Anne. “A World of Walking Wounded.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4699 (23 April 1993): 23.

[In the following review, Duchêne compares Folly to Edith Wharton's novels of manners, highlighting similarities between their protagonists and tone.]

Writing in 1925 about the craft of fiction, Edith Wharton decried, amid much else, “that common symptom of immaturity, the dread of doing what has been done before.” By this measure the young American writer, Susan Minot, in Folly—her third, very short but longest book so far—can be seen as quite remarkably mature. She does what many writers have done before, and what a great many more...

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Stanley Kauffmann (review date 24 June 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Gatherings.” New Republic 214, no. 26 (24 June 1996): 32–33.

[In the following excerpt, Kauffmann offers a negative assessment of Stealing Beauty.]

Bernardo Bertolucci's new film is a record of infatuations. Stealing Beauty (Fox Searchlight)—a meaningless title—tells us first of all that the middle-aged Bertolucci is infatuated with Liv Tyler, a young American actress. (I'm speaking only of what's visible on screen.) Such infatuation is hardly new, and sometimes it has produced exceptional work. But sometimes it's embarrassing, as it is here. Tyler has a good face for film, and Bertolucci muses on it at length: the eyes,...

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John Simon (review date 15 July 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Simon, John. “Bernardo Bertolucci's Bottles.” National Review 48, no. 13 (15 July 1996): 52–53.

[In the following review, Simon offers a negative assessment of Stealing Beauty, calling the film “a nasty tease.”]

In 1972, well before its commercial release, Pauline Kael pronounced Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris the film that made “the strongest impression on me in almost twenty years of reviewing. This must be the most powerfully erotic movie ever made, and it may turn out the most liberating,” she wrote. “People will be arguing about it, I think, for as long as there are movies.” When did you last hear people arguing...

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David Wiegand (review date 25 October 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wiegand, David. “First Love as a Last Thought.” San Francisco Chronicle (25 October 1998): Sunday Review section, p. 4.

[In the following positive review, Wiegand attributes the success of Evening to Minot's attention to detail.]

The characters in Susan Minot's achingly sad new novel, Evening, are like figures in a Fairfield Porter painting of summer people in Maine: dappled by a special sunlight, rich enough to keep a safe distance from each other, secure and placid against all external reality.

Perhaps as an intentional reference to the Katharine Hepburn character in Philip Barry's The Philadelphia Story, the central...

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Michael Wood (review date 18 February 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wood, Michael. “The Art of Losing.” New York Review of Books 46, no. 3 (18 February 1999): 7–10.

[In the following excerpt, Wood assesses the strengths and weaknesses of Evening, commenting that the prose in the novel is occasionally “just too casual.”]

Scarcely anyone now turns to novels, as so many once did, for direct information about the world. We are more likely to consult memoirs, biographies, histories, interviews, surveys—assuming we go to books at all, and are not already amply briefed by newspapers and radio and film and television, overwhelmed by news, talk shows, phone-ins, gossip columns, and those in-depth investigations which...

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Juliet Fleming (review date 26 February 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Fleming, Juliet. “Things Lost to Death.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5004 (26 February 1999): 23.

[In the following review, Fleming explores Minot's ruminations on death in Evening.]

The narrating consciousness of Susan Minot's third novel [Evening] belongs to sixty-five-year-old Ann Lord, as she slips, over the course of a few days, into death from cancer. Minot evokes with some precision the predictable intellectual and emotional terrors of Ann's position: her life has “not been long enough or wide”; she has not concentrated hard enough; has led her life “as if she were only halfway in it.” Alert to the imminence of her own physical...

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Charlotte Moore (review date 17 April 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Moore, Charlotte. “Finding More Than Life.” Spectator 282, no. 8906 (17 April 1999): 41.

[In the following mixed review, Moore praises the narrative significance of memory in Evening, but criticizes the novel's highly stylized prose.]

[Evening] is a novel about the big issues: the point of life, the meaning of death, the power and fragility of memory. Susan Minot lays bare the inner workings, both physical and mental, of one unremarkable woman in order to ruminate on the mutability of the human condition and the elusiveness of our understanding of it.

Ann Lord is 65 and dying of cancer. She lies upstairs in her tastefully...

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Brooke Allen (review date January–February 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Allen, Brooke. “Exercises in the Sensational.” New Leader 85, no. 1 (January–February 2002): 28–29.

[In the following excerpt, Allen criticizes the sexual premise and Minot's “shoddy” writing in Rapture.]

The novella form sneaks in and out of fashion. At its best—in the hands, for example, of Henry James, Gustave Flaubert or Joseph Conrad—its spare structure imposes shape and discipline, and it can achieve a formal perfection that eludes the broader, more sprawling novel. Often, though, the novella reveals itself as merely a failed, or aborted, novel, a creature too frail and fleshless for full artistic life.

This is the case...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Ansen, David. “Bertolucci Comes Home.” Newsweek (24 June 1996): 83.

Ansen criticizes Stealing Beauty, noting the odd contrast between Bertolucci's directing style and Minot's writing.

Brown, Georgia. “Beauties and the Beast.” Mother Jones 14, no. 5 (June 1989): 43–44.

Brown criticizes the “old-fashioned” feminine attitudes and perspectives of Lust and Other Stories.

Garrison, Deborah. “She's Old-Fashioned.” New Yorker (2 November 1992): 113–14, 116–18.

Garrison praises Minot's usage of tone and character in Folly.


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