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.
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.
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.
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.