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 example: through a series of vignettes, the novel tells of the growing-up of a large, rich middle-class American family in the Sixties and Seventies: the children start boisterous and charming and end up boisterous and less charming; their distant father takes to drink, they to sex and drugs and their vivacious loving mother gets killed in an accident. Each of the nine incidents in the novel is wonderfully wrought, with vivid observation and lucid prose—each would make a lovely short story actually—but they don't add up to a novel of substance. Partly, I think because seven children is too many for this sort of thing; there's not enough space to distinguish or develop them, and indeed the author is obliged to list them in order of age at the front, with their nicknames, so you can remember who's who and this makes it difficult to care much what happens to them. But more because Minot's precision-honed social realism actually traps her novel too tightly in place, and it is not a very interesting place for this British reader at least. So what? I want to say.
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...
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publishing a collection of short stories and a second novel, Minot worked on the screenplay forStealing 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.
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 style, tradition, and expectations—around the universal rhythms of birth, games, holidays, weddings, funerals, and daily dinner conversation.
Minot's first novel demonstrates a keen understanding of the perceptiveness of children who overhear and knowingly interpret parental actions and exchanges:
[Sherman] got up, all at once aware of himself, and scurried to his mother. The chair went on rocking. Ma stared at it. Rocking empty, it meant something to her.
These perceptions, often of yearning, emptiness, and conflict, furnish the tension that melts each separate story into one long tale that, one senses, will go on for generations.
Minot's ear for dialogue is impeccable. The expletives of children—“shut up” or “gross”—are balanced by descriptive richness: “the echo of water slaps”; “rays wheeled by through pleated shallows”; “skin cracked like rice paper”; and “a cloudy smudge that was the ocean.”
And character is created and sustained often through a single phrase left as a clue, added bit by bit to the overall action with great cumulative effect. Only by the end do we realize the impact of what we have been both shown and told—that Dad “barely feels the cold,” clings to an ever present bottle of Bourbon, is “never satisfied” with his own work; Mum is “warmblooded,” always keeps a small vase of fresh flowers, and “stopped listening to the pope” after the seventh baby.
In one or two sentences Minot sums up an entire mood or pattern of familial interaction, as when the Vincents arrive for Thanksgiving dinner, an inter-generational gathering:
They talked without looking at each other, their chairs all facing in. Aunt Fran addressed her remarks to the one spot in the room where no one sat or stood.
Of course, one must be careful of imputing religious elements to fiction where there are none, and this is a tale of an Irish Catholic family where trappings of Catholic practice are essential to the story. Still, I think Minot is a writer to watch as a developing Catholic voice, not because Monkeys begins with the line, “Our father doesn't go to church with us but we're all downstairs …” But because this author ends with a spontaneously invented memorial ritual that, in light of the novel's understated but climactic death, infuses the entire family with both life and hope.
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.
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 have handed Minot a bad rap, blaming her for producing a book less satisfying than her earlier Monkeys while failing to concede that a fiction set in, and concocted from, a world itself fictional is likely to be so different from a satisfactory reality as to become mythical.
In the same way that the City is irredeemably self-centered, and deaf to all cultural rhythms but its own, Minot's fiction is relentlessly self-referential, and if readers look in her work for threads, echoes, reverberations, correlatives, or connections to life as most of us are accustomed to it, they look in vain. For example, Minot's young women—no matter that they are all attractive, talented, intelligent, and independent—tend to go catatonic in the presence of men. It is as if the men exude an aphrodisiac that paralyzes the female central nervous system, a libidinal chemical weapon that, properly adapted and targeted, would end wars and civilize politics. In “City Night” the man puts his scarf around the woman's neck, and “With his touch, the will seemed to drain out of her and she had the dependent feeling of a child being dressed for the cold.” In “Lust” the woman thinks “When, with one attentive finger they tuck the hair behind your ear, you—You can do everything they want.” In “Sparks” the woman tells us, “Okay, so I met this guy the other night. … I don't know. I mean I didn't know what. It got me rattled.” In “A Thrilling Life” the woman is made fun of for the shoes she is wearing, then promptly says of the one teasing her that “this man could teach me a thing or two.” Before Galatea can be human, she must be statue.
Still, it is possible to learn from (and be entertained by) all sorts of fiction. I take it that this stoned pliancy is a central point of Minot's book—and the negative reviewers (most of them are more concerned with the bad character of the stories' males) are missing it. I'd like to believe that Lust is intended as fiction beyond fiction, and that in a dozen quite short pieces Minot has discovered how best to present what lust really is: not a passion, not a reckless pleasure, not an erotic madness, but only a thoughtless sexual drift, the unwilling suspension of consequence. If so, though this may be perceived as a slight book, it is not a bad book. Its sensibility is specifically and arrestingly female, and its message—however much we may otherwise be put off by the New York-napatawpha so prominently rendered in America's present literature—is worth attending to. Sometimes fiction is the only truth.
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.
Gilbert, Matthew. “Minot's Folly: Loveless Life in WWI Boston.” Boston Globe (6 November 1992): Living section, p. 39.
Gilbert offers a positive assessment of Folly, noting that Minot's prose is “exquisitely detailed and engaging.”
Miller, Laura. “Naked Lunch.” New York Times Book Review (3 February 2002): 6.
Miller discusses the cinematic tones and styles that Minot uses in Rapture, but criticizes the plotline of the book as being too neurotic.
Minot, Susan, and Carmela Ciuraru. “Susan Minot: A Writer Who Gets Inside Lovers' Heads and Writes Down the Things They'd Never Say.” Interview 32, no. 1 (February 2002): 78.
Minot discusses her beginnings as a writer and the subject of love in Rapture.
Review of Poems 4 A.M, by Susan Minot. Publisher's Weekly 249, no. 17 (29 April 2002): 64.
The critic offers a negative assessment of Poems 4 A.M., noting that the poems “are simply flat.”
Robinson, Roxana. “Remains of the Day.” New York Times Book Review (11 October 1998): 12.
Robinson offers a positive assessment of Evening, discussing the various stylistic elements Minot uses to pace her narrative.
Seaman, Donna. Review of Poems 4 A.M, by Susan Minot. Booklist 98, no. 17 (1 May 2002): 1500.
In this brief review, Seaman praises the poems in Poems 4 A.M., calling the collection “hauntingly anecdotal.”
Stevens, Elizabeth. “Too Close for Comfort.” Women's Review of Books 6, nos. 10–11 (July 1989): 42–43.
Stevens praises Minot's superb control of the main theme of Lust and Other Stories.
Taliaferro, Frances. “Proper and Improper Bostonians.” Washington Post Book World (11 October 1992): 4.
Taliaferro explores the characterization of the protagonist in Folly.
Additional coverage of Minot's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 6; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 134; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; and Literature Resource Center.
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 essences, in Monkeys Minot delicately expressed all the chaotic and finally touching baggage of family life. But in her new book, Lust and Other Stories, Minot's spare, elegiac manner becomes for the most part, plain spare.
The title story, the book's strongest, is a splendid look at a young girl's sexual history. The adolescent narrator describes the different amatory styles of various boys. One untucks her shirt and puts his hands up under in front, “standing behind you making puffy noises in your ear.” The hand of another likes to “leaf about at the hair of her neck.” The use of “leaf” is vintage Minot, simple yet revolutionary.
The narrator of “Lust” is filled with wise and funny and sad observations.
Funny: “The boys are one of two ways: either they can't sit still or they don't move.”
Wise: “The more girls a boy has, the better. He has a bright look, having reaped fruits, blooming. He stalks around, sure-shouldered, and you have the feeling he's got more in him, a fatter heart, more stories to tell. For a girl, with each boy it's as though a petal gets plucked each time.”
Sad: “After sex, you curl up like a shrimp, something deep inside you ruined, slammed in a place that sickens at slamming, and slowly you fill with an overwhelming sadness, an elusive gaping worry. You don't try to explain it, filled with the knowledge that it's nothing after all, everything filling up finally and absolutely with death. After the briskness of loving, loving stops. And you roll over with death stretched out alongside you like a feather boa, or a snake, light as air, and … you don't even ask for anything or try to say something to him because it's obviously your own damn fault. You haven't been able to—to what? To open your heart. …”
If only all the stories in this volume lived up to “Lust,” its salty passions, its perfect tonality. Unfortunately, in the other stories wan minimalism becomes frank anemia.
The characters are affluent, they live in penthouse apartments that are half art gallery. They go to posh restaurants for leisurely lunches. Their dramas are lower key, done up in miniature; we are supposed to decode the nuances of an entire relationship in the way a cab is hailed, a beer fetched, bread buttered. They do coke. They break up, and when two friends discuss a recent a casualty of love, one says: “Do you think he'll be all right?” and the other answers, “He's not going to commit suicide if that's what you mean.”
The common theme is love's brutal face. In “The Swan in the Garden” a woman wants to declare her love but backs off, saying, “I care.” She gets this response:
“Care a little less.” And then, “Can we stop talking about this now.” The story ends with this line: “She did stop and inside her something stopped too.”
That is cruel, and it should be chilling as well. But it is as if the people being cruel to each other are talking on a radio filled with static. There is no large and generous sense of who they are, who their people are, what they look like. And without any context other than the smart emptiness of their lives it is hard to care why they cannot connect.
If in Monkeys the author transcended fashion, here she appears to be its victim. In several of these stories, it's a relief that the characters are given even first names, let alone last ones or rich histories. The results are reminiscent of those photographs in which someone has placed his thumb over the lens; one is left to admire the periphery of sky and light and to be tortured by the hint of dazzling day.
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.
The speaker in “Lust,” the title story of this collection [Lust and Other Stories], is winding up her litany of male neediness and of all the different times it has ravaged her. For her, entreaty is irresistible. For Minot's men, on the other hand, it is unbearable.
When Meg, in the story “Ile Seche,” grows dizzy climbing a steep hill, her lover steadies her for an instant and then strides ahead, frozen. Her need is a threat; so is her sensibility. He can point out the view from the hill but when she asks him to notice the light as well, it crowds him.
The stories in Lust are sketches and vignettes that embroider a single theme. Between the sexes in the urban, educated and affluent set, the woman's lot is as bad as it's ever been and maybe worse. It is not only entreaty that is a one-way street; it is sex as well.
Sex, as the title indicates, is what the transactions are all about. It makes a constricted focus, not amenable to much development. The energy and individuality of Minot's sentences are remarkable, as they were in her first book, Monkeys. There, they illuminated the life, rhythms and death of a family. Here they have much less to work on.
The perceptions of Minot's young protagonists are so seamless in their up-to-the-minute state of awareness as to approach brainwashing. Yet the point of their morality tales is old-fashioned—which is not a fault—and tinnily repetitive—which is. “It was great, and don't call me, I'll call you,” it goes or, more plainly, “Men were deceivers ever.”
Repetition works best in the title story. The speaker, in her late teens, gives us a list of a dozen or so boys with whom she has had sex at boarding school, a place that has more than a passing resemblance to Minot's own school, Concord Academy. The tone is as dispassionate and precise as Bret Easton Ellis' or Jay McInerney's, but Minot, a far better writer, has a quiet wavering that lets pain show through.
Her notes on each boy are clinical, like a lab record or an FBI surveillance report. She speaks of “the first one I ever saw nude,” annotates the looks of different boys' genitals, discusses their techniques. There is a distance between each encounter and her feelings; a familiar literary coolness.
What is less familiar and where the wavering begins, is when she turns to the feelings themselves. The distance is now between the feelings and the “I.” “He had a halo from the campus light behind him. I flipped.” That should be headlong—“I flipped” is shorthand for “I was passionately thrilled”—but it isn't. “I” has lost the sovereignty not only of her body (she cannot withhold herself because she hates “teases”) but also of what she feels.
Only at the end of the list and the notes does sovereignty begin to trickle back. “You start to get tired. You begin to feel diluted like watered-down stew,” she tells us. “After sex, you curl up like a shrimp, something deep inside you ruined, slammed in a place that sickens at slamming. …”
The recognition could be glib. Something perfectly familiar has happened; the girl has been used, has cooperated, and regrets it. To be able to voice the regret is something, though; perhaps a first step out of anomie. And the discrimination of Minot's voice gives this first step a promising energy.
The glibness is greater, and the energy of the voice less, in many of the other pieces. The girl is now a young woman a few years out in the world. She is several different young women, in fact, but the same thing keeps happening to her. The men are older, more experienced, more powerful. They reach out to their quarry and take possession; when the woman tries to reach back, they move off.
It is hard to distinguish some of these stories from each other. The men that figure in them could just about be the same man. And the young women are all hurt in more or less the same way: by thinking that their lovers' attention promises a mutual relationship and finding out that it doesn't.
Each ends with a mordant incident or reflection; a kind of ironic kicker intended to clinch the point, but which makes it slighter and more obvious. In “Ile Seche,” for instance, Meg—a young actress vacationing with a successful producer—thinks of the motorboats in the harbor, and reflects:
She would not be coming home in one piece after all. She would be run over, chopped up by a propeller, an innocent swimmer in what she knew were dangerous waters.
In “A Thrilling Life,” the protagonist, whose lover has left her, imagines her successor with the same smugly-dreamy expression she herself wore when in favor. In “Lunch With Harry,” a woman knows she's slipping when her older lover, impatient at her slowness in getting into a cab, calls her by the name of a former mistress—with whom, as things faded, he no doubt had been equally impatient.
There is a similar sequence in “The Feather in the Toque” when a woman finds the photograph of another woman in her lover's summer house, discovers a tortoise-shell comb on a bathroom shelf, thinks for a moment it belongs to a rival, and then recognizes it as her own. She puts it back, “leaving something of herself for the next woman to find.”
These are devices, small traps that spring to fix an emotional moment. And it is the same emotional moment, time and again.
Minot's writing is an explorer's glass of extraordinary focus and illumination. In Lust she has asked far too little of it. It is made to be trained, as it was in Monkeys, on the wilds of the world and the heart, and not simply on its nearby and familiar entanglements.
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 rhetoric, and leaving things out for the sake of it can be as tiresome as putting them in for the same reason, but Susan Minot has enough tact to ensure that her ellipticality doesn't seem evasive. At their best, the attenuation of her stories persuades you that it's the result of genuine compassion rather than a merely modish parsimony of materials, a sort of nouvelle cuisine of the conte.
‘Lust,’ the opening and in some ways the keynote story, offers only 14 pages of discrete large-type paragraphs, but doesn't feel incomplete. It tells you all you need to know, or all the narrator cares to remember, about boarding-school sex, on and off campus, each relationship distilled into specific perception or gesture, the whole scene reduced at intervals to plangent summary. The girl—and by implication all the girls—has her code: ‘if you flirted, you had to be prepared to go through with it. Sleeping with someone was perfectly normal once you had done it. You didn't really worry about it.’ The boys make you forget everything else, so that, as she says later, ‘you do everything they want. There aren't any problems about that, but there are other problems that have to do with ‘something else entirely,’ with how you feel afterwards, how you look for something you can't find. It's clear, both from this story and its successors, that such difficulties are indicated by the line from Ovid used as the book's epigraph: ‘Ah, I have asked too much already, I plainly see.’
For all the New York chic which surrounds them, the situations and dilemmas of Susan Minot's women could hardly be more classical. They experience love as a kind of dreamy visitation; they're ‘up in the clouds, out of it, feeling no pain,’ but the pain will come later all right, when the man's gone, left for someone else, or when he won't, or can't give them what they want. Again, it's not so much the sex that's important as what it's preliminary to, what it promises but doesn't deliver. The women know they're going to lose and several of them try to guard themselves against attachment, to stay free, but their hearts are not in it. They know there's not much they can do about it, once a look, a touch, a night out changes everything. Not that the men are happy either: they're on the move and the make, preoccupied, hard to read, resentful of claim, and probably disappointed too. It's a bleak situation, but talking about it doesn't appear to help, and writing about it doesn't either, beyond a certain point, soon reached. The terseness of these laconic tales has its own telling decorum.
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 imperial administrators because while in India “he tended to mix with the wrong people.”
Multiculturalism may be deplored by politicians and leader writers but for our best writers it's simply where the action is. …
Susan Minot's stories [in Lust and Other Stories] are enjoyable too, though in a very different, almost perverse way. Reading them is rather like browsing through the ads of an upmarket American magazine. The characters are almost all unmarried New Yorkers aged twenty-something. They are uniformly successful—artists, journalists, bankers—but we never see them at work. They sit in restaurants, at parties, on holidays and discuss their relationships.
And though there are a dozen stories, there is only one theme—women losing their innocence at the hands of men—and one elegant, bittersweet tone running through them.
This summary may sound hostile but I don't mean it to be. The first story, “Lust,” consists entirely of separate, unconnected paragraphs retelling one woman's sexual experiences and it suggests an almost anthropological basis for the whole book. All the over-educated, over-civilised young urban professionals in this book believe that they are talking about the head and heart when in fact they are driven by an impersonal biological determinism.
The gulf between the characters' conscious impulses and their instinctual drives proves over and over again to be unbridgeable, and the women suffer the consequences while the men self-consciously indulge and explore themselves.
Unfortunately, though, it is not just Minot's characters but her own prose that is over-decorous. She's on to a good subject and it would be interesting to see her treat it more brutally.
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 is dazzling.
The surface of Folly feels serene enough, for serenity is a dominant force contending for the heart of its heroine. Coming of age in Boston during World War I, Lilian Eliot lives in an affluent, insular world, where people put “their feelings in one hidden place and the rest of themselves out in life.” Mothers won't even tell their pregnant daughters that childbirth is messy.
Warm and bright, Lilian at 18 flows easily with this stream of decorum until she meets visiting New Yorker Walter Vail. Salting Lilian's world with its first taste of passion, he sees beyond Boston and sees new things in Lilian.
“The person he sees is quite different from the one I feel myself to be,” Lilian senses. “It's a better person Walter Vail sees. She preferred being that person … she had the feeling to go with it, a feeling everywhere in her, poured into her body as brass into a mold, liquid and warm.”
His first kiss puts color into her black-and-white world. When Vail goes off to war, remains in Europe and marries a Frenchwoman, those hues fade.
The passing years resign Lilian to staid Boston and lead Gilbert Finch into her life. Stodgy and insipid, Finch is “the sort of fellow who moves over on a bench to make room for a girl, not thinking that the girl might want to sit close.” His idea of pleasure is bird-watching, “especially if they were indistinguishable and brown.” He is exactly the sort of man her friends have married, and when he proposes, Lilian accepts because he was the one who expressed interest when she was ready.
Lilian bears three children. Finch suffers protracted clinical depression broken by moments of domineering petulance. Then Walter Vail returns, widowed.
There is no doubt which man the reader wants for Lilian. Vail is Cary Grant to Finch's Ralph Bellamy. But this is Boston in the '30s, where leaving a husband or even breaking the mold is believed “insanity” or “ruining her life.” As Lilian spins internally through fire for Vail and duty to Finch, it is precisely because she struggles so hard to stifle her yearnings that we sense how powerful those yearnings are.
Minot evokes the era expertly. She dabs period detail—Herman the Great Mouse cartoons, ball gowns of rustling organza and crepe de Chine—and employs a narrative voice faintly antique. She uses spare prose with gem-like precision and a painter's eye. Like Fitzgerald, she cascades names for atmosphere and sketches characters clearly in two or three strokes.
They become, however, background against which only Lilian stands out fully drawn, for this seems, initially, to be her story. But soon, to borrow a Minot metaphor, at the end of Lilian's sleeve we see our own hand.
Under the magnifying lens of her rigid world, Lilian struggles to become who she is meant to be while her vision grows torturously bifocal. Is she meant to be like virtually everyone else—proper, despite the desolation that will cling to every day of her life? Or should she swim against the current, as do a favorite aunt and an artistic friend, who are led, respectively, to solitude and suicide?
If Finch has proven to be a nagging ache, Vail, with his frequent disappearances, can be a searing pain. Just miles from where the words “quiet desperation” were first penned, Lilian has found her marriage to Finch to be side-by-side, not face-to-face; yet even if emotionally absent, his body is in the room.
As tension swells over which course Lilian will choose, we sense how carefully Minot's grim vision has shaped Lilian's life. Her darkest depths coming from shattered hopes rather than progressive petrification. We fear she may define happiness as absence of pain, a notion built entirely in negative territory, and buy peace with lost hope.
Like Lilian, the novel itself may too easily reject the heights of human possibility. But if Minot eschews the grandeur of high tragedy in favor of taut realism—and it's arguable which she achieves—Folly places her beside the most gifted of our young writers—Madison Smartt Bell, Lorrie Moore, Mona Simpson—whose best is yet to come.
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 unbounded sexual world of the late '70s and early '80s. The enigmatic signals came not from their parents but from the men they were involved with.
The sexual battles that Lust's protagonists puzzled over, and invariably lost, were told in graphic contemporary detail. In Folly, the theme is essentially the same, but the voice now has an archaic reticence. It is the story of the romantic delusions of a Boston society woman between the first and second world wars.
Minot tells it in a style that variously suggests Edith Wharton and the now-forgotten genre of middle-brow women's fiction of the interwar period.
The Eliots are encrusted in the leached-out world of Boston society, exclusive and bland at the same time. They have a four-story house in the Back Bay, four or five servants, and a calendar of engagements that creaks around a rusty circle. Mr. Eliot, hidebound and petulant, is an autocrat in rimless glasses who would be surprised if you called him one. Mrs. Eliot is mild and, with the help of a few drinks, mildly fey.
Lilian, their daughter, has intelligence and a certain fire. Sometimes, she feels something like a great wave inside her. Her mother, the milkman and the maids also have a wave, she is sure, but they hide it. It's brave of them and she will learn how, she decides.
It is 1917. Walter, a New Yorker with Boston connections, comes to call just before he is to go overseas as a soldier. He is direct, impulsive and seemingly passionate, and Lilian is entranced. They have a few clandestine meetings—a hug and a kiss that Minot, in banked-down mode, makes thrilling—and then, after breaking a date or two, Walter goes off to war, writes once and goes silent. He stays in Europe and gets married.
Lilian broods and hurts. Eventually, she marries Gilbert, whose quiet manner, mild eccentricity and closed-mouth smile are, she convinces herself, signs of a great wave like hers and similarly diked in. It turns out to be a stagnant puddle, though, and their marriage proceeds dully through the years.
At one point, Gilbert has a breakdown and recovers only to turn moody and selfish as well as dull. Lilian is aimless and bored; neither her life nor her three children interest her. Only the half-acknowledged thought of Walter does. She calls it her “splinter.”
When he turns up twice over the next 20 years, there is a brief flare-up of something like passion from which he quickly retreats. At the end, at 40, she sees her dead mother's hands at the end of her own sweater sleeves and her dead father's face in her clock.
Minot is a greatly gifted writer who, after the family story of Monkeys, hasn't found quite enough to write about. In Lust, she made a witty and perceptive portrait of how men make women feel. Even in a theoretically liberated time, she suggests, women are the ones who try to figure the relationship out. They suffer the weakness of having to invent the story. Her achievement was one-sided, though. The women's psychology is brilliantly done, but the men are shadows.
Sustained mainly by her fine perceptions, the two-player game with one player peters out.
In Folly, something similar takes place. Minot has found a scene and time—upper-crust Boston before World War II—where the pressures of society on women are explicit. Lilian has to invent her men. Walter is no dashing seducer, but only a lazy and part-time one. Gilbert's air of hidden mystery conceals very little and becomes simply a way of shutting her out.
True, his breakdown hints that it is not only women who are distorted and wrecked by the roles they are given. But the hint is not enough. Minot's men are only the furniture her women trip over.
It is a tribute to the author's skill that the constricted, old-fashioned style in which Folly is told works very well at the outset. Even in the explicit sexuality of Lust Minot has always written with fine discrimination.
For a while, the reticences of her Boston novel are cleverly used to shape the portrait of Lilian and her fetters. But once the fetters begin to hold—once she marries Gilbert—nothing essentially happens. Everyone behaves predictably and the playing-out becomes a very slow and dull game.
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 of Lilian's aunt, a spirited spinster named Tizzy, is a kind of cautionary tale. Yet in Tizzy Lilian finds a kindred spirit, one whose life—although deemed tragic by the society around her—seems surprisingly fulfilled.
Lilian is a mild young woman, docile by today's standards, yet rebellious in her own mind. There is, in Lilian, Minot writes, a “thing which didn't match up with the world.” She longs for something more than the sharply restricted life that stretches ahead. She falls in love with a ne'er-do-well, Walter Vail, who later abandons her. For years, obsessed with Walter, she rejects other suitors. Finally, at 27, daringly late for the era, she marries a strangely detached man named Gilbert Finch. Yet still she thinks of Walter.
As Lilian settles down to motherhood, she feels that something is missing. Indeed, marriage—which involves endlessly anticipating and meeting the needs of her husband and children—turns out to be unexpectedly draining: “She felt as if she were filled up completely with Gilbert Finch and had nothing else to say to anyone.”
Then Walter returns. Their reunion is a brief encounter, but it provides fuel for Lilian's emotional life for a long time to come. “So this, she thought, is how my life turns out: that there are slivers into which I pack my greatest feeling. …” By quietly keeping her obsession alive, Lilian proves to herself that she isn't dead yet. “Feeling something strongly,” she says at one point, “gives one the look of being alive.”
In Folly, Minot closely mimics the earliest novelistic techniques. The plot ticks on irrevocably and the narrative voice sounds intrusive and authoritarian, a throwback to “dear reader” days. Even in small, stylistic ways—from its lack of quotation marks to its coyly Victorian chapter titles—Minot's novel acts like a period piece.
Yet the book is more than a good reproduction. Slowly—too slowly, perhaps—the book's feminist perspective becomes evident. Folly, we see, is a book about the subjugation of women, about what happens when half of society is condemned to live in service of the other. While Lilian is infinitely more aware—and more dissatisfied—than her female friends, she is shockingly oblivious by today's standards. “Not only did she not think of making certain choices herself, she was completely unaware of having the desire to do so.”
Unfortunately, in making the point that Lilian is oppressed, that her character has been subsumed by the people around her, Minot is almost obliged to create a character who is passive and bland. Her strengths are subtle ones, perhaps too subtle, and her character develops in tiny increments. While she is well drawn, at times she seems too dreary to merit our attention.
Still, the reader who perseveres will be richly rewarded, for Lilian's character, like the novel itself, blossoms in the end. And some of the writing—notably in a chapter called “The Wing” that creates, and sustains, a powerful, affecting metaphor for Lilian's emotional life—is wonderfully fluent.
Folly is a fascinating book, full of the insights one era can offer another. It's a voyeur's novel, one that lets us scrutinize another epoch with a modern eye. There are hints of a complex world here—from manic-depressive illness to incest to closeted homosexuality—that the book's characters conspire to keep hidden, from each other and from themselves.
At one point, an insightful, doomed friend of Lilian's sums up her situation, and that of her circle of female friends. “One does have feelings in a dull life, which aren't dull,” she says. “Aren't they worth reading about?” In Minot's novel the answer is, resoundingly, yes.
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, her second novel, opens in 1917, with its sheltered but intelligent heroine, Lilian Eliot, poised on the brink of womanhood. Although the story unfolds through the jazz age, the stock market crash, and the Great Depression, Folly takes its predominant tone from that hypothetical age of innocence, America in the teens.
Indeed, Minot has written a novel that is not merely old-fashioned in the way that a Barbara Pym or Anita Brookner novel is, but that actually reads like a revival of the 19th-century genteel tradition. Each of its 58 brief chapters bears a proper Victorian-sounding title, like “The visitor from New York” or “Mrs. Eliot is surprised,” and the language and style would not bring a blush to the most modest of maidenly cheeks.
The chapters are grouped into six main sections, each named after a different character, who, contrary to expectation, tends to remain in the background of the section bearing his or her name. Delicate indirection is the keynote.
In “Mr. Eliot,” named for Lilian's stern father, the usually obedient young lady takes the rash step of defying her father's orders when she arranges a secret rendezvous with a dashing enlisted man from New York. Walter Vail is different from the other boys she knows: charismatic, ionic, sophisticated—a disconcerting blend of intensity and nonchalance. They go ice-skating. They walk on the Common. They kiss. Walter seems captivated by Lilian's freshness and wit. (“You're some girl,” he tells her.) And Lilian feels the depths of powerful emotions stirring.
The mysterious and elusive Walter proves a magnet for the welter of feelings that the well-bred young lady has long been wondering what to do with. But, while she is prepared to “understand” his romantically evasive soul, he is not all that interested in being understood. Departing for duty overseas, he leaves more than one broken heart in his wake.
In the second section, entitled “Walter Vail,” Walter is firmly out of sight, having stayed on in Europe after the war. Yet he is oddly present by virtue of his absence, as Lilian surveys her other suitors and finds them all lacking the special qualities that Walter seemed to possess.
Lilian finally does fall in love in the third section with a quiet young man whose background and outlook seem wonderfully close to her own. Gilbert Finch, she believes, is someone who truly understands and who will understand her. She wonders now what she once saw in a “frivolous” man like Walter Vail. In Walter's presence, she had felt as if she were being transformed into someone new. With Gilbert, she feels she can return to being “herself, the girl she'd been long ago.”
With her marriage to Gilbert Finch (in the section bearing his name), Lilian enters the adult inner sanctum of the world in which she was raised. The little girl who used to wonder what people were actually feeling beneath the bland faces put on for convention's sake now gets to see the full extent of the denial and self-censorship practiced by her kind. She bears three children and is “shocked to discover what a messy business childbirth was—no one had told her—and afterwards she joined the secret club and didn't talk about it either.”
But something even stranger and less explicable is happening to Gilbert, who is troubled by something he cannot or will not discuss. Lilian looks around at her friends' marriages but cannot figure out what she should expect of marriage in general or Gilbert in particular. Is it normal for a husband to become moody, withdrawn, preoccupied, and reclusive? In a world of ritualized drinking and long silences, where husbands and wives routinely retire to their separate rooms rather than discuss their problems, Lilian is not sure how big their problem may be.
While Lilian has been carrying the weight of her private anxieties, other women in her circle have been suffering in similar silence. The most offbeat of her friends, a frail, artistic type called Irene (the book's fifth section is named for her), turns out to have been far more unhappy than anyone had guessed. At one point she almost confides in Lilian: “I find it's more and more difficult to say something which matches up with what's in my head.” She falters, then pulls back, adding, “Isn't that silly?” Irene's tragedy is that no one, perhaps not even herself, sees the trouble she is in—or, more accurately, the trouble that is in her. The unspoken code of what may be said and what must be kept silent has claimed another victim.
In the last section, named after Lilian's nonconformist, now elderly “Aunt Tizzy,” Walter Vail returns. Will Lilian demonstrate the truth of Aunt Tizzy's shrewd observation that “even a girl who is not an idiot can behave like one, given the right situation and the right boy”? But what Lilian faces now as a mature woman is no simple choice between two “boys,” but the subtler, more complex problem of how to integrate her capacity for intense emotion into a life that holds no real place for it. She cannot really even “choose” Walter—not permanently anyway—because Walter is not interested in making a lasting commitment.
Like the British novelist Anita Brookner, Minot explores the interiorized, Henry Jamesian territory lying concealed in the heart. But where Brookner's passive heroines seem hobbled by oddities of temperament and character, Minot has made her heroine a victim of time and place. In some ways, it may be a little too neat and perfect a solution to set the story in the past: By drawing on readers' stock responses to the period, Minot comes closer to caricaturing history than illuminating it. But her carefully thought out depiction of Lilian's inner world and of the difficulty of finding an accommodation between desire and reality, silence and self-expression, has a universal resonance.
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 clatter outside the open windows—Sixth Avenue, too, is being ripped apart.
A seasoned interviewee who has been profiled in Mademoiselle,W, and New York magazine, Minot is relaxed and breezy. “They're not even always accurate,” she exclaims about the other interviews. “I should correct that little press kit. For one thing, Minot doesn't sound like ‘Why not.’ It rhymes with ‘Sign it!’” About being interviewed, she says with a grin, “The less said the better as far as I'm concerned … about anything.” Coming from a writer who pares her prose to the terse minimum, the statement has its own logic. Minot pulls up a big chair for PW and gets positioned in another. We sip cranberry juice.
Her second novel, Folly (after the highly praised Monkeys and the collection Lust and Other Stories) is just out from Seymour Lawrence/Houghton Mifflin. Beginning during WWI, it focuses on a prim upper-class Boston milieu. “It's a world I always resisted,” she explains, “which is why I wanted to see how it worked in a novel. Yes, I know something of that world,” she says, modestly gliding over her patrician family background. “I actually am not a moneyed person, I don't ‘have money.’ The money I have, I've made. And yet I went to private schools [including posh Concord Academy], so I never lacked for it. But there are different degrees.”
At age 34, Minot looks a lot sunnier and blonder than the gravely wistful author photographed in 1986 and 1989 for the jackets of Monkeys and Lust. Her lively urbanity doesn't jibe with the depressed young women populating the stories in Lust, willing doormats to men who are cads and rats. Nor would Minot make you think of the martyred Lilian Eliot, Folly's heroine, who slavishly adores a man after he uses her casually and chiefly ignores her. And yet, Minot insists, “I identify with her. I identify with folly, foolishness.” Of Lilian's marriage to the lugubrious Gilbert Finch, Minot says, “He's placid, he's safe. Safe is maybe what she can manage. She's accepting a degree of unhappiness. There's some folly in there, and maybe there's some bravery.”
Like Lilian in the novel, Minot is a painter. “I do watercolors in a decorative way. When I'm on a trip I'll do little scenes and decorate my letters.” But painting and writing differ. “A writer is more like a spy.” In gathering material for her fiction, she suspects “people think I do spy.” But her real material for her characters is “interior. They are fragments of myself. I could say they're all me, really.”
Asked about Lilian Eliot's apparent sexual repression, Minot counters, “There's a lot of sexuality in Lilian. It's not expressed. It's channeled into this obsession with Walter, carrying this torch for the first man that stirred her. A lot of her energy goes into that. They're sloshing around in her, these yearnings she has, but there's nowhere for her to express them, except in ardor for this man who's not there.” Minot agrees that sex is “a major motivation. It's much more of a concern than what finally gets down on the page.” Could a writer, too, forget or sublimate her sexuality if she got totally involved in her art? “Would that that were true!” Minot murmurs, with a smile.
Her decision to set the story in an earlier period came from a desire “to focus on a woman's experience, to see how much society's expectations determine how one lives one's life. I was interested in what the experience of a woman in another time would have been—with the addition of some kind of modern consciousness. I think that a lot of Lilian's dilemmas are those one can relate to today.”
Minot achieves her understated style with effort. “It's like boiling down. Four pages can go through six, eight, 10 drafts to get down. The beginning is always rewritten much more than the rest, because it's the setting up of information as well as the telling of the story—that's always much harder to juggle.”
She likes to elicit friends' opinions while she's writing, a practice hinted at by the acknowledgements page of Folly, which lists a roster of colleagues. “I show them different parts, and I'll get some reaction. Even sometimes before they've said a word something will suddenly be clear to me, when before I'd been muddling through. The fact that some other eyes are on it and I can say”—Minot raises her hands in a pushing-away gesture—“‘I've thought this. Say no more!’ Just the fact that it's getting an objective look helps me get a different slant on it. And some people gave me very good suggestions. I was having a hard time at the beginning, and someone who read it suggested I start in a place that was then much further along in the book, and have it be a flashback.”
Among the people she thanks, Georges Borchardt has been Minot's agent from the start. “I couldn't be happier.” Borchardt is a firm ally, especially “if there's any danger I might get to be nervous about things.” Another is writer Nancy Lemann, to whom Folly is dedicated. “She's an old friend of mine from college”—Brown University, that is, where Minot studied writing with R. V. Cassill. “We've always commiserated with each other. She's very encouraging. She dedicated her first novel to me, Lives of the Saint. While I was writing Folly, I had a kind of contentious relationship with the material. I'd fret, who's going to be interested in reading this—tea parties in Boston? And she'd always say, ‘Oh, I would!’”
Minot corresponds with another friend, Darryl Pinckney, author of High Cotton. “He's a wonderful letter writer. He won't just say, ‘Oh, I liked it,’ but will give a good literary reading. He recommended different Boston novels, helped stir my mind, novelists like Henry James, [James] Fenimore Cooper, William Dean Howells. They explore this same territory, so I checked them out a bit. I had never read [John P. Marquand's] The Late George Apley, and I started to read that and I got about 10 pages into it and I though, this is too much the material that I'm trying to write about, so I put it down.”
The legendary Seymour Lawrence is Minot's editor and mentor. “He looks after his authors very well. I met him through an editor, a mutual friend of ours, at a reading in New York when I was at Columbia. I was in my last semester in the writing program there. I was introduced to Sam as someone who had just sold her first story to the New Yorker, and he said, ‘I'd like to see some of your stuff.’ I sent him that story and two others which happened to be about the Vincent family [the characters in Monkeys], and he offered me a contract.”
Lawrence, who is well known in the industry for discovering and nurturing young writers, remembers that he “saw unmistakable talent” in those pieces. “Joe Kanon was then president of Dutton, and I think it was the quickest contract we ever signed. We were so excited about her as a talent. If Monkeys was her debut and also announced her arrival as a young star, Folly marks her achievement as a maturing artist,” Lawrence says.
In the acknowledgements, Minot also thanks Ben Sonnenberg, former editor of Grand Street. The citation reads: “I don't know what I'd do without him.” “Ben Sonnenberg is my editor, too. I have two editors on this book,” Minot say equably. The five-part structure in Folly “was Ben's suggestion, which was really right. As I was structuring the novel, it made sense to divide it into those sections. And to name each section after one of the characters. There is that added glaze over it, that implies that these people all influence one another.”
Reviewers and readers received Lust less enthusiastically than Monkeys, with some male readers, in particular, getting huffy at Minot's portrayal of callous men. While Minot agrees that women are more likely to be interested in her work, she says she'd “like to write books that men would like to read—I'm not trying to speak only to women.” Her extensive attention from the media came not after the acclaimed Monkeys but along with the mixed reviews of Lust. “Those were all Lust profiles,” she says of the magazine articles about her. “When Monkeys came out, I really didn't do any promotion. Monkeys made a splash because it was reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. That got it a lot of attention, so when I was doing the promotion for Lust I felt a little more secure about having interviews. There were a lot of questions about Monkeys, since I hadn't talked about it before.”
Asked about the cooler responses to Lust, Minot demurs. “It's actually getting a reputation now. There were more good reviews than bad. But no review has ever been a surprise to me. The good ones actually may be a surprise. But the bad ones—it's never something that hasn't occurred to me already.” She laughs. “I'm afraid that they will spot every weakness. Or I imagine how something could be taken a different way.”
Monkeys received the Prix Femina Etranger and has been optioned for a film. “Someone else wrote the screenplay for it and the options ran out, so I've since thought of doing the screenplay myself. I would never have felt confident enough to do that before, when it was my only material. Still, when I start talking about it, the material I know so well, letting it go out into the collaborative world of film is a little nerve-wracking. Studio films are not so interesting to me as small, low-budget movies, movies that don't show off a lot of money. But you know movie talk … it can go on for years.”
Meanwhile, there are fresh ventures. her next project will depend on “what else is going on in my life. I have a number of stories in various stages of disrepair that I can work on. It helps when I get back into a routine.” Her next work of fiction, a novella called Evening, has a contemporary setting. She's integrating into it a scene she had written for Folly and later removed, about a woman on her deathbed. “It has to do with her memories and also with her relationship with her nurse, the woman who's looking after her.”
When she's in her routine, Minot writes every day, all day, five days a week. “I usually go to my office at about 10, 10:30 till about 6, except maybe for lunch or to work out. I have had an office. In the new apartment I won't but I have one now in TriBeCa, just a room.” She exercises “either at lunchtime or the end of the day.” In a white short-sleeved leotard top and flaring black silk pants, Minot is lithe as a dancer. Red-nailed toes emerge from the black suede slingback sandals. “I work out three or four times a week. Or I run.” She hugs one pure black silky cat, while the other makes friends with PW and rattles in the wads of brown wrapping paper on the floor. “Otherwise I do not move. I'm just sitting there all day long.”
Minot says she has thought of experimenting with other genres—plays or original screenplays. “I've been discussing some screenplay things with friends of mine who are independent producers,” though “not at this point” with filmmaker husband Davis McHenry whom she married in 1989 and who also gets a graceful mention in the acknowledgements. Minot admits that the two of them have since separated. Has that experience made its way into her writing? “Um, no! It's the simplest answer to that question!”
She's not sure how she feels about her forthcoming evening reading November 24 at Limbo on Avenue A on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. “I'm going to be doing a lot of reading in bookstores, since I'm about to go on tour for the book. I have mixed feelings [about reading] my work. Sometimes I feel better about my work than I do at others, and when I feel better about it I'm happy to read.” She imagines asking an audience, “Do you really want to hear this? Maybe it's not important enough.’”
Susan Minot's preferred subject matter isn't hard to discern. She admits that although “there are marriages in Folly where people are happy together, those are not the ones that I'm exploring.” She laughs as she observes, “There's more fictional material in unhappiness and disappointment and frustration than there is in happiness. Who was it [that] said, ‘Happiness is like a blank page?’”
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 column about recent fiction. Do the eight novels discussed here “go well together”? Is there any reason why they should? There is such diversity and variety among novelists today that any large generalization seems arbitrary and suspect.
Why were these eight novels selected from the dozens published in the past few months? Obviously one cannot ignore the recent work of such established writers as John Updike, Julian Barnes, and Günter Grass, nor overlook new novels by such lesser but estimable figures as Maureen Howard, Michael Ondaatje, and Rosellen Brown. Susan Minot published a dazzling autobiographical novel, Monkeys, in 1986; her new book, Folly, could not be omitted from a discussion of serious fiction. …
In stark contrast to Maureen Howard, Susan Minot is wary of excess and at ease with the hesitations of understatement. She is a literary stylist of rare delicacy and precision, and in her new novel, Folly, she has attempted, with considerable daring, to convey the ambiance and mood of the old proper-Bostonian world in its own idiom, adapting the language of her characters to her purposes. Thus she underscores the intentionally old-fashioned tone of her story with the “period” device of pointed chapter headings (“A Friend Advises,” “The Visitor from New York,” “Some Shocking News”).
Minot's first novel, Monkeys (1986), told a sad and elegantly wrought story about a large and lively family, on the North Shore of Boston, forced to cope with the untimely death of the mother. In Folly, Minot turns her glance back to the grandparents of those bereaved children, to recreate the stultifying upper-class world of Beacon Hill from the time of the First World War to a few years before the start of the Second.
Folly is the coming-of-age story of Lilian Eliot, the very young and pretty and woefully naive daughter of stuffy Boston parents. She has never dreamt of questioning their intransigent assumption that a “good” marriage, to someone of exactly her own class and background, is her sole purpose in life.
When we first meet Lilian, at the age of eighteen, her well-bred assent to the hidebound givens of her class and time has been shaken by the appearance at Beacon Hill tea parties of Walter Vail, a handsome and dashing soldier from New York, the foreign world these Bostonians instinctively distrust. At once excited and disconcerted by Walter's flirtatious attention, Lilian asks him home for dinner, only to have her father insist she withdraw the invitation. “I don't like the look of him,” Mr. Eliot scowls, and Lilian, “a good clear Boston girl,” does as she's told. Though it never seriously occurs to her to rebel, she does meet Walter surreptitiously, and thinks herself deeply in love after some furtive hand-holding and a chaste kiss or two. Lilian's sexual ignorance is absolute, but her confused longing is pungently clear.
After Walter goes off to fight in France, none of Lilian's cautiously ardent letters to him are answered, and she hides her bitter disappointment behind the acceptable gestures of stoic resignation. “How could she have expected to hold and to understand someone like Walter Vail?” she wonders. Since Lilian is not entirely devoid of spunky pride, she also adds, “Of course he could never have understood her either.” But she wouldn't think of saying this to anyone but herself. Inevitably, Lilian fulfills her parents' agenda of respectability by marrying the right wrong man—the dull and upright (though actually eccentric) scion of an impeccable Boston family, having several children, and shedding her youthful illusions about the compatibility of passion and duty. This illusion, as Minot's title implies, is folly, though she may also be suggesting the opposite—that it is folly to discard such illusions.
“Resignation” would be an equally appropriate, if less resonant, title. For Minot's deeper purpose in this novel, beyond recapturing the diction and habits of an earlier day, is the quiet but unstinting illumination of an unremarkable woman's progress toward self-awareness, as she forces herself to accept the loss of unrealizable dreams. What Minot is writing about in Folly is the untraumatic but inexorable death of happiness. Although the tone of the novel is in the main too wistful and diffident, Minot allows her stylistic virtuosity freer rein in a few brilliant set pieces. One calm day at the shore, Lilian, innocent to the core, observes a couple on a boat whose playful romp is clearly the prelude to sex, and she is stunned by their public display of desire. Years later, while her husband is recovering in an English sanitarium from a nervous breakdown, she puzzles over her life as she takes lonely walks through the dripping countryside, and the melancholy that Minot conveys with the sparest of strokes is unforgettable.
The power of such scenes makes one regret that Minot has chosen to cage her language so severely within the cadences of the time and world in which her story takes place, since this to a large extent deprives Lilian's melancholy destiny of much of its inherent poignancy. And her heroine is finally too limited in sensibility, if not in sense, too crippled by reticence to sustain the weight of mature perception she is finally asked to bear. In binding herself to the idiom and demeanor of a time so different from her own, Minot has stifled too much of her uniquely luminous lyricism, and the resulting flatness of texture is folly of a different kind.
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 judgment might sound to a poststructuralist critic, Manzoni nonetheless correctly assumes that even a sophisticated reader expects a historical novel to be faithful to the past—just as he expects a novel with a contemporary setting to be faithful to the present. (Ian Watt and others have even defined the novel—as distinct from romance, fantasy, fable, and the like—in terms of such empirical faithfulness.)
The real difficulty here may well lie in determining what the past was—and this is not a problem that is any closer to solution today than it was in 1850. On the contrary, at the end of a century of R. G. Collingwoods and New Historicists, we are more skeptical about the truth of history than ever. We find ourselves unable to consider even such a relatively recent, well-documented, and compact set of events as the Whitechapel murders of 1888 without observing that those events were given disproportionate importance (for there have been many more heinous crimes) by the new tabloid journalism of late Victorian England—or that the persistent notion of Jack the Ripper as a member of the upper (perhaps even royal) classes is only a mythologized protest against what the Haves were doing to the Have-Nots.
Such an atmosphere of relativity would be a nightmare to a Rankean historian, or to a naive historical novelist. (By naive I do not simply mean premodern: Manzoni knew that the most objective historical record often merely left “the credulous deceived and the more reflective in doubt.”) But it may be one of the salient characteristics of the historical novelists of our time that they can regard the uncertainty of history as liberating rather than disabling—and that they consciously accept the responsibility of making something essentially true out of what they know to be actually untrue or at best uncertain. …
Yet another fine novel of life during and following the Great War is Susan Minot's Folly, although I would caution a reader to persist for fifty pages or more before judging it. For, like some of Flaubert's highest achievements, it is about an innocent heart, and the irony is so sympathetic and so subtle that the author might at first pass for simply naive. Not only Flaubert but also James, Jane Austen, and Edith Wharton seem to be part of this deftly written novel's ancestry. Like Jane Austen's work, its perspective is always feminine, and it is occasionally feminist. It is also an instance of a species that has always been endangered—the American novel of manners. Thus it is not surprising that it is set among the Boston Brahmins of the earlier twentieth century: then still a highly mannered society, but one that was beginning to disintegrate under the pressure of modernism.
For a young woman such as the protagonist, it is an especially narrow world where she can expect to fulfill herself almost exclusively through marriage. Lilian Eliot is first presented to us in such conventional terms that we may find ourselves wondering if anything very profound can lie ahead: “For a long time she had thought of George Snow who preferred tennis to girls and before that, Fellowes Moore, until he liked her back. Last summer she'd liked Jimmie Weld, but when the fall came he looked different back in Boston.”
A reader might not at first know what to make of this apparent lightweight, but as Lilian matures it becomes clear that she is not so much shallow as sheltered and that the narrative perspective is quite deliberate. In fact, except for a few capital offenses (“snuck” for “sneaked,” “convince” for “persuade,” and a redundancy—“the l'Orangerie”) the author exercises masterly control over her impressive linguistic and tonal resources.
The chief forces in Lilian's life continue to be men, however, and it is clearly a man's world she lives in. The two extremes between which she vacillates throughout are her husband Gilbert Finch (whose apparent solidity and sensitivity turn out to be early symptoms of a mental disorder: “It's the sensitive ones who go under,” her aunt observes) and his opposite number Walter Vail, whose selfish manipulation of the rapt Lilian torments her right into middle age. Neither Lilian nor anyone else seems able to attain much happiness in such a society: despite her wealthy friends' immunity to such historical juggernauts as war and economic depression, they commonly end in insanity and even suicide. Undoubtedly the vestiges of such a world are still among us to the extent that study of them is worthwhile, but the historical setting brings these forces into sharper relief—a clear example of a past with Lukác's “felt relationship to the present.”
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 have failed to achieve: she floats a delicious social comedy on an ocean of private pain and desolation.
The story covers twenty years in Boston society, from Christmas 1917, when the young men are moving off, in a flurry of modest chivalry, to be officers in the great European war. Lilian Eliot is eighteen. Her parents belong to the Boston ascendancy, own a Copley portrait, dine at seven, go to bed at nine. Her father is a kind of echoing mausoleum, with somebody alive trapped inside. He does not need to go to work (“the Eliots were well off, not fancy, but well off”), but he rigorously does. He does not allow gossip at table, nor look at his son when addressing him (Arthur, will triumphantly carry out his early promise by becoming a wastrel). Lilian's gentle mother stays within reach of any friendly decanter, and can be seen smiling, “with an expectant look, waiting for whatever was funny to drift over her way and make her laugh, too.”
Lilian's Aunt Tizzy has got away to New York and become a conscientiously roaring eccentric. These three all have a section of the book named after them, though not one in which they play any particularly prominent part. There are two blank pages between each of the book's five sections; it is astonishing in its miniaturist scope.
Lilian herself experiences the “miraculous disturbance” of sexual desire while being kissed, intermittently but intently, over one Christmas, by a young officer, visiting from New York, where “people were different.” Walter calls his parents by their first names, and discusses money in public. He makes only random appearances, later on; but his influence delays Lilian's own marriage by a whole ten years. (This allows two quite splendid pages about the weddings of her schoolfriends meanwhile; notably of Sis Cabot, who “married Cap Sedgwick at the biggest wedding Boston had seen in a long time. The two of them strode towering up the aisle, learning forward like giraffes.”)
Finally, Lilian marries a mild younger son of Boston, Gilbert Finch, who is uneasy in society, and given to bird-watching—proclivities which induce, with perhaps some genetic inheritance, a fierce melancholia, and a clinical depression. He writes letters of heart-rendering courage and restraint, then returns home, to work and drink with numb, dumb diligence. His section, “Gilbert Finch,” precedes one called “Irene,” which is virtually an independent short story, of traditional form and matter, and of great poignancy. Irene was at school with Lilian, married “sporty Bobby Putnam,” had three children, and has turned to drink too, before reaching direr conclusions. “I find it's more and more difficult to say something which matches up with what's in my head,” she tells Lilian. “Isn't that silly?”
Lilian, meanwhile, is having more and more difficulty in supposing that any young woman of good character with the right credentials would not be as welcome a wife to Gilbert as she is. At the end, her resolve very nearly breaks. It is helpful to reflect that if Gilbert is empty, Walter is too full to have room for anyone beside himself. But above all, in a world of walking wounded, she is her father's daughter. Very early in the book, she looks critically at her parents—“her sense of happiness was grand and sweeping, and theirs was small and tidy.” Contemplating everyone she sees around her, she makes a resolution: “There was life inside all of them and yet how secretly they kept it. … She would learn to be the way they were and not show what was going on inside, not because it was the way everyone seemed, but because it was brave.” Not an exclusively Bostonian message. One imagines Edith Wharton would recognize gratefully such a gifted and elegant young descendant.
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, cheeks and mouth that are fine in themselves and together compose loveliness. Otherwise, Tyler is dull: a droning voice, commonplace talent, no electricity. Yet Bertolucci treats her as if she were, say, a new Audrey Hepburn and thus only makes her slightness slighter and his enslavement more patent.
Another infatuation, more understandable. Bertolucci loves Tuscany, where the film is set. He wants to use it, not only as background but as an aesthetic embrace of his characters. Tuscany is paradise, as someone says in the picture, but Bertolucci and his cinematographer, Darius Khondji, are so besotted with it that they have mostly rendered it in heavy postcard colors.
Still another infatuation. Bertolucci, after all these years, is still wonderstruck with decadence. “Decadent! How I love that early Victorian word!” says a character in Shaw's Fanny's First Play. Well, Bertolucci is less early Victorian than late neo-realistic, as he reruns the symptoms of rotted European morality that oozed across the screen in the '60s and '70s. When Tyler goes to a large party in a large villa, we expect that, after enough wine and enough pot, we'll see the Ugly Facts about these seemingly beautiful people. And, unfortunately, Bertolucci does not disappoint.
Bertolucci's original story—a generous adjective—was made into a screenplay by the American novelist Susan Minot, who has an unwavering eye for the predictable and an ear for the tired phrase. (One lover to another: “I like it when you're mad.”) The basic idea is that Tyler, now 19, has come to a hilltop villa to have her portrait done by an Irish artist who lives there with his wife and a garland of guests. Tyler is also returning to this place because here she had her first kiss (not from the artist) and may now have her first sex. She will also try to discover the lover of her now-deceased mother who might have begotten her at this very villa.
Not unusable themes, but Bertolucci is so avid for “touches” that the story gets smothered with atmospheric baggage. One of the guests (Jeremy Irons) is terminally ill and is near the end; his function, on his way out, is to urge Tyler to live—by which he means to copulate. Also on the premises is a “legendary art dealer” (Jean Marais, Cocteau's erstwhile ideal now in his 80s) intended, I suppose, to give perspective to the century. He is mere ambulatory décor, as is a journalist who writes advice to the lovelorn (Stefania Sandrelli, once one of the stunners in Bertolucci's The Conformist). And there's an American lawyer and his English girlfriend, who provide samples of sexual intercourse when the director wants to dab it in. Various high-testosterone English and Italian young men are woven through for differing reasons, and there's an overnight visit by an Italian army lieutenant for no reason whatsoever.
Naturally there are big dinner tables in the kitchen and big luncheon tables under the Tuscan skies, and naturally what looks initially like a group of attractively tinted souls turns out to have different colors. The general atmosphere is supposed to be sexual, through which Tyler is moving toward defloration. Twice she accidentally witnesses couples grappling. Her near-seduction is accompanied by hootchy-kootchy “Oriental” music (and there's no reason to think that Bertolucci was being funny; he has no humor).
But long before the promised end, we sense that, interested though he may have been in Tyler's story, Bertolucci was chiefly concerned to employ his infatuations in what he thought would be a Chekhovian mode. Assemble a group of different people in a country house, each with a strand of history and a purpose, and the result is Chekhov, right? This was the delusion that hobbled the recent Russian film Burnt by the Sun, and it does the same to Stealing Beauty.
Something else becomes clear about Bertolucci. When a career is so heavily laden with vacuous artiness, so full of inadequately examined choices, so emptily assumptive of superiority, a hard fact looms. Fundamentally, under the chi-chi, Bertolucci is stupid.
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 about Last Tango? If it is remembered at all, it is for Marlon Brando's use of a stick of butter to bugger Maria Schneider with.
From his first feature, The Grim Reaper, and first succès d'estime,Before the Revolution, Bertolucci looked to me like a three-lira bill. There was less to his films than met the eye, and much less than warranted the ooze of ohs and ahs. To be sure, he has carried pretentiousness to new heights, remotely basing his films on prestigious writers' fictions: Before the Revolution on Stendhal, the nonsensical Partner on Dostoyevsky, the equally impenetrable The Spider's Stratagem on Borges (who told me he had never heard of this movie that proudly displayed his name), The Conformist on Moravia, The Sheltering Sky on Paul Bowles (though, as David Thomson remarked, “he hardly seemed to notice the terrible darkness waiting beyond Paul Bowles's bright sky”).
Of all these, The Conformist, which bore some resemblance to its source, was the best. Other films which Bertolucci, sometimes with collaborators, wrote himself were worse; thus Luna and Little Buddha, two of the biggest crocks made by an allegedly major filmmaker. The Last Emperor did have some merit, partly because of the exotic and picturesque milieu, and partly because Bertolucci, like some other perennial amateurs, knows how to pick the right camera man to do most of his work for him. For a long time, it was Vittorio Storaro; in the current film [Stealing Beauty], it is Darius Khondji (Before the Rain,Seven).
What characterizes the work of this Marxist (or ex-Marxist) attitudinizer who has always been a solid bourgeois is a certain rivenness, an unsureness that often amounts to hysteria. As Robin Wood noted, “The split is not merely thematic (hence under the artist's control): it manifests itself at every level of his filmmaking.” I am all for complexity and ambiguity, for raising difficult questions rather than disbursing easy answers, but I am not for nudging us toward sleazy revelations and then evading them. With hardly any exception, Bertolucci's films hint at, hover around, or briefly dip into homosexuality and lesbianism, but this ostensibly heterosexual filmmaker making purportedly heterosexual films has never faced the issue squarely.
Stealing Beauty, from a story by Bertolucci, was written by the American novelist Susan Minot, who spent 18 months on it in Italy with the director, though the sketchy, haphazard end result suggests something more like 18 days. It is one of those films called Chekhovian, a term that is sadly turning into a euphemism for boring. An English couple, Ian and Diana Grayson, inhabits a sprawling, romantic hilltop villa in the Chianti country between Florence and Siena. He is a sculptor; she is a homemaker, and in twenty years has turned their home into a museum. Not only are Ian's sculptures and drawings (the undistinguished work of Stephen Spender's son, Martin) all over the place, but also every conceivable artifact and object di virtù litters every nook and cranny, and most of the space in between.
Outside, there are painterly Tuscan landscapes for the camera to scan day and night. Inside, there are equally colorful house guests: Alex, a minor British playwright, is genteelly awaiting imminent death from cancer; Richard, a married American show-biz lawyer, is alternatingly copulating and quarreling with his likewise married girlfriend, Miranda, the Graysons' elder daughter, a jewelry designer. Christopher, her husband, is traveling about with his companion, Niccolò; midway into the film, they return.
“Those naughty boys,” says Diana. “I'm sure they are being very naughty.”
“I'm sure,” retorts Miranda, “they've gone beyond naughty by now.”
Noemi, an attractive middle-aged lonelyhearts columnist, is carrying on with a much younger fellow, and is furious when he makes her read Benjamin Constant's Adolphe, where such an affair ends badly. M. Guillaume appears to be Ian's powerful former art dealer; now old, he lounges about forlornly, uttering portentously vacuous aperçus in French, e.g., “There is no love; there are only proofs of love.” Also around is a neighboring landowner and lecher, Carlo, whose son is Noemi's lover. Whether I have got all these relationships right is doubtful: of the three reviews of the film I have read, two got some of them wrong, the third confessed to total confusion. Blame Bertolucci's sloppiness.
Finally, though, it all centers on 19-year-old Lucy, a visitor from America. Still—and given her background, highly improbably—a virgin, she has come to the villa on a dual mission: to revisit the boy who gave her her first kiss five years ago, and to find out more about her dead mother, who spent much time here and may have conceived her by a man other than her husband. Mother, we are told wholly without irony by Alex, “was the best-dressed poet, writing transporting little verses between fashion shoots.” In America, she married a poet five inches shorter than herself—the kind of meaningless detail Bertolucci likes to regale us with.
Lucy is very pretty and becomes the cynosure not only of the aforementioned characters, but also of several faceless and epicene young men who also loiter about. Wherever she looks, someone is poking someone of the opposite or same sex, and she is disturbed: “You're in need of a ravisher,” Alex opines, sagely. There is nude bathing and sunbathing at the pool, pseudo-sophisticated badinage everywhere (“We've become a nation of monologists,” or “Let us bring up the rear, like Turgenev's poor Rakitin”), and one close call after another for Lucy's hymen. But the girl always bristles and runs. There is also one very shy, dark, and introverted youth who considers Lucy “plastic,” but seems to have been the one who actually wrote her some lyrical letters. (Guess what his role will be.)
Perversion lurks around the corners. Richard and Miranda are glimpsed falling to sadomasochistic sex. At the annual summer ball at a nearby spectacular palazzo and grounds, orgiasts are everywhere. As Lucy is dancing with Carlo, a woman comes along, squats, and pees, asserting that this is what Carlo really likes. Lucy even takes a snaggle-toothed young Brit home with her, but then insists on separate beds. Oddest, however, is a narcissistic episode before a mirror, triangular in cross-section, that runs along an entire wall in Lucy's room as a kind of dado. Richard gets down on all fours before it, has Lucy do so next to him; then he licks his image in the mirror and has the delighted Lucy follow suit. In between such incidents, she conducts coy colloquies, meant to be soul-searching, with her elders.
In due time, Lucy finds out what an olive grove looks like; what death means, as the aptly epigrammatizing Alex is carted off to the hospital; who her real father is; and how it feels to have sex. One is sorry for the decent actors—Donal McCann, Sinead Cusack, Carlo Cecchi, Stefania Sandrelli—mired in this smutty-adolescent stew. And even for the less decent ones, such as Jean Marais, whom one is glad to see still alive and handsome, even if made to spout nonsense; and Jeremy Irons, insufferably mannered though he has become. D. W. Moffett (Richard) and Rachel Weisz (Miranda) pretty much deserve what they get, as do the shadowy young men flitting about.
As Lucy, there is Liv Tyler, who does have something, although it may not be acting talent. Tall, dark-haired, blue-eyed, heavy-lidded, and sensually thick-lipped, this sexy 18-year-old daughter of a rock star and an ex-model is well on her way to stardom. But she has yet to be in a movie that offers her a chance to act, instead of merely surrounding her with unwholesome, aestheticizing innuendo that strains to elevate indeterminacy into significance.
Years ago, Bertolucci said in an interview with Joseph Gelmis, “Giorgio Morandi painted bottles all the time. … And there are some directors who make always the same film. And poets who write always the same poem. This to me is very beautiful. Because the robins sing always the same song.” Alas, obsessions are not all of the same value. The bullfrog may be just as obsessive in his song as the robin in his, but they are hardly equivalent. Morandi's bottles (and cups and salad bowls) came only after he had proved his mastery with superb landscapes. And still-lifes—think Chardin, think Cézanne—are something more forthright and ecumenical than smirking allusions to homosexuality and self-indulgent oglings of perversion as, for instance, in this scene from 1900, as described by David Shipman:
There is a wedding ceremony during which the aristocratic Amelia (Laura Betti) shouts four-letter words before rushing off to the woodshed where she performs fellatio on the Fascist Attila (Donald Sutherland): discovered by a small boy, he and then she sodomize him before killing him by swinging him by his legs so that his head is crushed by the four walls—for which the rich young man allows his best friend to be blamed, despite his being miles away at the time.
The director pretends to be making a moral statement—this is how evil the Fascists were—but is really reveling in pathology. Bertolucci's Marxism was no more committed than his present dilettantism; politics was always merely an excuse for perverse suggestiveness.
Yet even this is never honest. Bertolucci keeps teasing you, in small matters as in large. Thus, in a bathtub scene in Stealing Beauty, he displays Liv Tyler's right breast: later, as she poses for Ian (whose final portrait of her is totally different), Bertolucci has her baring her left breast. In the film's penultimate scene of grunting sex, he carefully reveals nothing; it's all a nasty tease. Morandi's bottles are a wholly different matter as, with the passing years, the painter kept stripping them down more and more toward their essence. If Bertolucci is a master of anything, it is of the inessential.
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 character is named Ann Lord. She is 65 and lies dying in a house in Cambridge, Mass., taking stock of her life and coming up empty. She has had three husbands—one she divorced, the other two she survived—and children by each of them.
But once upon a time, in the 1950s, the young, unmarried Ann Grant traveled with friends to a wedding in Maine and met a young doctor from Chicago named Harris Arden. They fell in love, had a clandestine affair, and it changed her life forever.
As Ann faces her death in the present tense, her mind wanders back to revisit those brief days in Maine one minute, only to return to the long business of dying the next.
The moment Harris tells her he loves her is a defining one for Ann. Knowing for the first and only time in her life what real love is, she knows what life itself is as well: “So this is what the night is for, she thought, this is what arms are for. This is why that window is there, why people sleep at night, why they lie beside each other, what life is. This was the point. She split out of the world with him and everything around them became something sealing off the two of them with no time in it and no endings and no loss or worry. She was full.”
Minot creates an extended counterpoint between Ann's discovery of the meaning of life at the age of 25 and her approach to death at 65. Visitors come and go, but she is often too lost in the past and in imagined conversations with her long-gone lover to notice.
The visitors bring unwanted details of the outside world: “They came in one after another, up the stairs on the pale-green nailed carpet around the flat top of the landing past the prints of ships sailing through icebergs and ships aflame at night … they glided into her room and stood underwater holding their breaths watching her breathe water staying very still till finally they could leave, get out and gulp air. … They came to her bedside and talked about what was going on downstairs, out the door, out on the street, in other houses, out in the world.”
After the affair with Harris, Ann married one man who disappeared after their divorce, a second who beat her and died at a tennis club, and a third, much older, who died as well. She remembers the facts of her marriages, but as her mind sifts through her life, only Harris stands out in three dimensions. This wasn't how she'd always imagined it would be: “With (her last husband) gone she had thought glancingly of the end. She imagined it would be like standing on a plateau from which one looked down and reviewed the various roads one had traveled and saw the territory one had covered. But it was not like that. She lay looking up not down. And instead of long meandering roads and their destinations she saw a snowfall of images—faces she'd know and rooms she'd lived in and tables sat at and oceans swum in and clothes worn and streets turned onto and other beds she'd slept or lain awake in.”
From our viewpoint, Harris was a cad, a man who beds another woman even as his pregnant fiancée is about to arrive on the scene. To reconfirm his character flaws, there is an accidental death after the wedding and a brief discussion as to whether Harris could have done anything to save the man, if he had not been off making love to Ann.
Minot has created an effective treatise on love and death in Evening, and her mannered writing style, for the most part, fits. At times, though, she lapses into breathless over writing, as she does when detailing Ann's affair: “The sky was an example of how far distance could go. I go on forever, it said, nothing can be contained. She was the same, she went on forever. … She was never more herself and yet never so altered … his departure was there in each touch and she went toward that departure without reservation or need for proof, she went full-fledged. Every nerve had him running through it, electric for him. Only in another person's arms could this happen.”
A few paragraphs later, as their lovemaking continues: “In the soft air she saw the outline of his hip and flank and leg and then the dark root floating stiff from his silhouette and didn't dare touch him there right away.” In moments like these, though they are blessedly few, Minot approaches the creation of a true literary rarity: the minimalist bodice-ripper.
Dark roots aside, the core truths of Evening win out because of the details, some so minute only a dying woman might remember them. “Stick with the concrete, she told herself. It helped ward off the pain.” She remembers the settings of her ebbing life with heartbreaking clarity: “In New York the first apartment with Phil with the hissing radiators, then the bigger one off Park and Seventy-seventh where Margie was born and they put her in the bottom drawer. … The rentals. In Easthampton with the black pool. The driftwood one with the dune grass brushing the deck. (Her son) was carrying a bucket of crabs from the marsh pond … on Gray Gable Road she'd had a tulip magnolia tree blooming cream and pink … a ledge with a china couple dancing a waltz, a brown and yellow radio she listened to doing her math. … What was that? Bees buzzing, or was it a cocktail party on the other side of the fence? She lay under the covers like a clothespin with the bed all around her.”
Moments like these, and there are plenty of them, more than save Evening as they convince us that a broken heart can last a lifetime.
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 remind us how far down the surface goes. We don't expect novels to tell us the way we live now, in Trollope's phrase: only the way we don't live, or would like to live, or think we live.
There is something wrong with this reasonable proposition, but it's not immediately obvious what it is. Certainly novels no longer do their old documentary job, although even when they did, in the works of Balzac, Dickens, and Zola, say, they dealt as much in fantasy as they did in realism—as if fantasy was a way of drawing out the real rather than its escapist opposite. Stendhal's mirror on the road and the Naturalists' slice of life were gestures toward the neutral observation the nineteenth century thought it wanted and could have. But the gestures were full of other possibilities, and the nineteenth century wanted other things as well. The mirror could be tilted, the slice taken at an angle. These were not biases but choices, and the choices were part of what was being said. Even Trollope's famous title has its quiet irony, the hint of an awareness that any representative “we” is likely to contain quite a few satirical “theys.” The way we live now is the way some of us live now, or are supposed to live: a fraction posing as a whole, a mythology rather than a portrait. Remembering this lurking irony, we do still turn to novels, perhaps, not for the unadorned record, but not just for evasions or for revisions of history either. Novels give us a chance to worry or gloat over various pictures of contemporary living, and to wonder whether living is what this is.
I'm not suggesting that Trollope is a major influence on contemporary American fiction, but it is odd to see his name and his title recur, along with precisely the irony and the reservations they evoke. Cathleen Schine writes of a character who sees the “natural world,” in this case “the life of a yellow, smiling land iguana,” as unfolding “in all its Trollopian detail”: natural selection as novelistic riches. One of Jay McInerney's narrators refers to Susan Sontag's borrowing of Trollope's title (“Coover's ‘The Babysitter,’ for example, that's your top-dollar story idea. Ditto Sontag's The Way We Live Now”), and another knowingly wraps the phrase into his prose:
They live in a community called Live Oakes Manor, two-to-four-bedroom homes behind an eight-foot brick wall, with four tennis courts, a small clubhouse and a duck pond. This is the way we live now—on culs-de-sac in false communities. … Terri's two-bedroom unit with sundeck and Jacuzzi is described in the literature as “contemporary Georgian.”
And even when the signals are not quite so clear, when we can afford to forget about Trollope as long as we remember the question of representation, the novels under review are full of traces of a world that looks like ours. People get married in Maine, die in Boston, visit Venice; they grow up on the Connecticut or Massachusetts shore, get abandoned in New York, rediscover themselves in the Galapagos Islands. They lose their jobs and trawl Manhattan in search of ever more elusive pleasures. And they always, in all three books, fall in love, and have theories about their fall, because they know that unexamined love is not worth having—or at least they know that they are not going to get it. In Susan Minot's Evening, love exhausts and defines the world. “If the concept of romantic love has any use,” Jay McInerney's narrator says in Model Behavior, “it is to denote that vast residue of inexplicable attraction which is not covered under the categories of blind lust and well-informed self-interest.” Not a big discovery, maybe, but a large step for a fellow who generally finds lust and self-interest a full-time job. The love in Schine's The Evolution of Jane is the most unusual because it is love for a time and a place and a person all at once: for a childhood that could have been lost but isn't, because it is so perfectly, so affectionately recaptured in the memory.
Of course, the way we die now is also a good subject, and it is Susan Minot's in her fourth book, Evening. Ann Lord, sixty-five years old, three times married, is dying of cancer, and remembering the lost love of her life, the one that got away. His name was Harris Arden, he was a doctor, and they met at a wedding party on an island off the coast of Maine. They fell for each other, spent the night together, and then he remembered—or rather, had never forgotten—that he was engaged, and went back to marry his pregnant fiancée. That was all, but it was enough, or nearly. “She knew that what they'd had was not enough but believed it would have to be.” And it was enough, in another, damaging sense: enough to haunt the rest of her life, and make everything else seem a fake or a diversion. For good measure, their night together is paralleled by the absurd, accidental destruction of a likable minor character, the bride's cheerful, drunken brother, so that both married and unmarried love are shadowed by violent and unexpected death.
The novel is framed and punctuated by conversations between Ann and Harris, looking back on their respective lives, on what they missed and where they ended up. “Where were you all this time?” the book begins. “Where have you been?” It ends with Harris's final departure:
I won't say goodbye.
No, she said. Don't.
He did not come again the next day, he did not come the day after. He did not come again.
It's possible, even likely, that Ann is imagining these conversations, that the man of her memories is currently present only in her mind, but this option only underlines the urgency of the lost relation, the cruel dominion of the life they didn't have together. He didn't come again, we may think, because the mind he was visiting was extinguished on the last page, because Ann Lord has died into the silence beyond the book.
Evening is a curious mixture of the discreetly modernist novel—single-word title, no quotation marks for dialogue, multiple flashbacks, plenty of stream of consciousness, epigraph from Faulkner cueing us in to the importance of remembering and forgetting—and the entirely old-fashioned romance, where love is all, and the characters inhabit sentimental stereotypes as if there were no other form of life. You might think the modernist text was the hard part—hard to read, and perhaps hard to write—but in fact it reads fluently and persuasively, and it's the romance that causes the problems.
Sometimes the writing is just too casual—as if the editor had taken a holiday at the wrong time, or the author believed too much in the authenticity of the first draft. “Her heart began pounding in a sort of sickened way.” “Each time he touched a new place she sort of fell off an edge.” “The sky sort of jolted to a stop.” “Something erupted in her chest with a gush.” “Something was opening beneath her. It seemed to be her soul. Something stole into her as she walked in the dark.” “What they knew had faded into a kind of mirage. It became One of Those Things.” Clichés are wonderful stylistic instruments, but they need a little maintenance if they are not to turn to mush.
At other times, Minot's writing shows all the signs of hard work, trying to make us see and feel whether we want to or not. “Ann felt as if a heavy boot were on her chest, slowly crushing her lungs.” “She felt as if she'd been struck on the forehead with a brick.” “Inside she was crashing like the bottom of a waterfall.” “Her heart was crashing. … She felt as if the whole factory of herself had been thrown into operation with one switch.” “It was as if someone had pierced her chest. She felt it in her toes. It was a marvelous feeling.” Momentous emotions are being announced as momentous, rather than being recreated for us. As the last example makes particularly clear, bathos is never far from these exertions, and the book is full of sentences and exchanges which are crushed to comedy by the weight they can't carry. “She said his name to herself and felt it inside her as something full. Harris.” “For a long time neither of them spoke. Finally she managed a word. God, she said.”
Minot's signature in her early books, Monkeys (1986) and Lust (1989), was an artful appearance of naiveté, a minimalist innocence, which allowed children and bewildered young adults to suggest truths beyond their linguistic reach. “Mum hardly ever plays with us because she has to do everything else.” “Everyone began to smile. But their smiles wouldn't quite take and their faces wouldn't quite go.” “The boys are one of two ways: either they can't sit still or they don't move.” “I felt very adult, reasoning away my emotions. I didn't say a thing. It was a peculiar feeling, it felt very strange. It was like being dead.” This is a little arch, but it's very effective: the characters wave their tiny words at unspeakable catastrophes, abandonment and loss, a mother's death, a father's descent into drink.
In Folly (1992), there is already some of the later stretching for simile (“It was as if she'd become velvet blackness.” “Her mother's death was like adding a bucket of black paint to an already dark barrel”), but the plain nostalgia of this chronicle of a life all but empty of romance—Folly is really Evening without the cancer, and with a longer historical sweep—absorbs these strains easily. “So this, she thought, is how my life turns out: that there are slivers into which I pack my greatest feeling, that the moments with this skittish man who appears now and then in my life are to have more power than the days with my husband.”
Evening too has its moments of minimalism, where the thinness of the language becomes moving through its very poverty. “She wanted his hand, she wanted someone to take her hand and take her away, but he was not there and all the someones were gone.” When the nurse looks at Ann Lord in the early hours of the morning, she sees a “face wild with pain, pleading for this not to be true, a face incredulous and lost.” The narrative structure of the novel, with its old and new times crowding unpredictably into Ann's pain-beleaguered mind, is both firm and flexible, and the prose itself often catches what feels like the very tempo of Ann's distress. “I'll never get out now she thought I'll never get back down those stairs a moth battered against the ceiling against the ceiling against the ceiling.” Here is how Ann remembers her various husbands, as they begin to melt together in her memory. “They all said will you marry me it had been raining they were by the river another couple walked by a boat slid past in the dark. … I know I am young and don't know I am not so young any more I will always I will never tell me again of course I do by now you should know don't you know by now of course I do I know I do too they all said they did they all said I do.” In fact, almost every direct encounter with Ann Lord's dying is eloquent in its helplessness, its sense that the reign of words is over. “The ceiling was frowning. It said no one knows what life is for, no one knows what anything means, the plaster soft and uneven, the lines as thin as the cracks in one's palm, it said silence wipes everything out.” But then the final suggestion of the novel is that speechlessness produces better writing than talkative love, that dying is more vivid than living, because it represents a whole kingdom of variegated pain and loss, while the great romance, the ostensible center of the missed life, is a corpse that no amount of strenuous description can animate, just one of those faded things. It's as if Cole Porter, to say nothing of Petrarch, had lived in vain.
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 extinction (“the pink sheet was the last sheet she'd use”), Ann realizes that it is not only people and things that will be lost in death, but the logic and memory of their use. Death “was coming to her slowly and the room remained indifferent. The bedposts rose up with notched pinecones at the end and the narrow desk stood there shut with the key in the keyhole and on the bureau were the silver frames with her children in little squares and little ovals.” Things may endure, but the ways in which they have mattered will not: “The ceiling was frowning. It said no one knows what life is for, no one knows what anything means, the plaster soft and uneven, the lines as thin as cracks in one's palm, it said silence wipes everything out.”
Ann has lived a privileged life, in full awareness of the material and emotional history and future consequence that make up its single moments. “Cement steps led up to brick storefronts with trucks parked diagonally outside. Restaurants had orange claws over their doors and drive-in dairies had children sitting backwards at picnic tables eating soft ice cream.” While the past imperfect tense and paratactic syntax that dictate the mood of Evening are occasionally wearing, they also work to mimic the production of meaning at the moment of its erasure, as well as suggesting the regular proposition of an intentionality that leads nowhere, that is Minot's theme. In any novel, the detail is endeared by the fact that the reader is likely to forget it; giving this fact into the hands of a dying narrator, Minot is able to milk it for a considerable amount of pathos. Her method can be read in miniature in her deft account of the life not lived by a friend of Ann's who died on holiday thirty-five years ago: “Buddy with a bag unzipped going back to college in September, needing a haircut, forgetting his keys, who would play hockey and kiss girls and see snow falling and get married, wake to rain, go grey.” According to Minot, no one can grasp life; whether lived or not, it is always saturated with the sense of a loss beyond remembrance.
Predictably, since this is a novel without emotional or intellectual surprises, the test case for the meaning of life is that of a love affair briefly enjoyed, hopelessly lost, and remembered, on and off, over the rest of life's course. Evening is The Age of Innocence without the innocence of that age. When, after their transforming weekend together, Harris returns to his pregnant fiancée, Ann is left to meditate on the path not taken only with regret. For Ann, love is the principle that positions you correctly within time: in the car with Harris, “the world was perfect and tight and balanced and as they drove past the sheep on the tilted field it seemed that the trunk of each cedar tree was perfectly formed, and had been set down in precisely the place it belonged.” But love is also that which cannot survive time: producing the request “Stay like that. Stay like that always,” it is a metonym for the erasure of a life whose qualities must always remain unknown: “what else had life been but a night in the dark on the ground turning in a stranger's arms.”
One of the advantages of Minot's elaborated method, and the obsessional nature of her narrator, is that it allows her to return to certain episodes and correct the clichés in her chosen story. While Ann experiences sex with Harris as the pleasurable but hackneyed proposition that woman needs a man to complete her—“she had not felt empty until now being filled she saw that everything without him was empty”—it comes to stand as a metaphor for the production of meaning in life. Ann falls in love with Harris, because love produces the void it (briefly) fills. The best love gives you something to want or remember: “his departure was there in each touch and she went toward that departure without reservation or need for proof, she went full-fledged.”
In one of the hallucinatory meditations of her illness, Ann realizes that the heart which had hungered for Harris, “which had asked for too much and had left her behind” to live and be more or less happy with others, had in fact never left her. “I am here swimming up from this sea beside you I am here I have always been here your true self I was never gone and though you thought it came from him it was really yourself your whole self entire swimming underwater all the time there beside you.” Life is best embraced as loss; a fact that allows Minot to imagine death, rather finely, as a parting from a lover never had: “she released his collar and his sleeve and his hand and dropped the jangling latch of the screen door, she lifted her palm from the oilcloth on the table and let go of the stars which had been too bright and the pale black sky and dropped like a stone the sight of him leaving through the window not having said goodbye.”
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 appointed house in Cambridge, Mass., drifting in and out of consciousness on waves of morphine; downstairs, her children prepare themselves for her death and unintentionally reveal how patchy their knowledge of their mother is. Slowly Ann Lord's thoughts and dreams cohere for the reader's benefit. Minot grants her central character the privilege of making retrospective sense of the shape of her own life.
One summer weekend 40 years earlier, Ann fell in love at her best friend's wedding. The encounter proves to be the shaping experience of her life. The man, Harris Arden, is equally smitten, but he is already engaged. An ordinary story, but Susan Minot takes the three great invariables—birth, copulation and death—and links them to make this heightened weekend a lens through which to scrutinise all that matters. Ann and Harris Arden consummate their passion, but the same evening Harris's fiancée has told him that she is pregnant, and in 1950s Ivy League America no disentanglement is possible. While Ann and Harris make love, another young wedding guest, brother of the bride, is badly injured. Harris is a trainee doctor; a search for him is mounted. Ann hears the searchers calling his name, but in her desire to keep him to herself for their few remaining hours she ignores their cries. The injured man dies.
In Harris Arden, Ann feels, ‘she'd found … the great thing … she'd found more than herself which was everything, and found more than life.’ After this episode, nothing ever quite fits. Ann has three husbands and five children (one of whom is killed in an accident rather gratuitously paralleled with the death of the wedding guest), but it is this long-ago encounter that is pivotal; no other part of her life makes sense except in the light of this experience. And yet there is no one else who knows its significance. It has left no trace except in Ann's own memory, soon to be erased by death.
Minot's prose is ambitious, and she largely succeeds in convincing us that we are privy to the experiences of the dying woman. She is skilful in giving texture and substance to mental processes, and the comparison she makes between the sensations of physical passion and those of the last stages of cancer is particularly interesting. But there is much overwriting and she can be tiresomely oblique. In order to enable the reader to enter Ann Lord's consciousness punctuation is sometimes dispensed with, which is tiring and confusing. Ann is the only character with whom it is possible to engage; too many of the minor characters are little more than names. The effort required of the reader is not always justified, but by the end one does feel that Susan Minot knows what it means to live and to die.
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 with two new attempts: Joyce Carol Oates' Beasts and Susan Minot's Rapture both weigh in at barely more than 100 pages. Oates and Minot are capable, professional writers; if they have chosen the confines of the novella form, one would like to think it is because they know what they're doing, but each of these tales seems more like a misfired full-length effort than a well-plotted shorter one. Rapture, in fact, was originally advertised as a novel, but evidently someone at Alfred A. Knopf thought better of the classification and affixed a blank sticker over the words “a novel by” before sending out the review copies.
A wise move, for Rapture is not so much a novel, not so much a novella even, as souped-up magazine fiction, real Cosmo-girl material. Why did Minot decide to publish this? What can she have been thinking? Although she may not be a writer for the ages, her work so far—three thoughtful, sometimes excellent novels and a collection of short stories—has established her as someone consistently worth reading. Her last novel, Evening (1998), was a graceful, bitter, fluid piece of work, one of the smartest and most memorable books in recent years.
After a work of that quality, the careless and immature Rapture is hard to account for. Could it be a result of Minot's slumming about in the movie business, as the screenwriter of Bernardo Bertolucci's abysmal Stealing Beauty? It's possible; the film and the novella share a mindless fetishization of sexuality for its own sake that ultimately manages to make sex, that most perennially fascinating of all subjects, seem dull.
Rapture is entirely constructed around—and this is not a joke, it is a straight-faced stroke of romanticism on the author's part—a blow job. The longest one in recorded history, or at least it comes to feel that way to the reader. The couple involved are referred to as “old lovers,” but should more properly be called “former lovers,” since Kay and Benjamin are not old at all. They are in their vigorous mid-30s, prototypes of the vaguely glamorous, stupefyingly self-involved cappuccino quaffers who peopled the lower levels of New York's art, literary and film businesses during the 1980s and '90s, and whom Minot anatomized in Lust (1989), her short story collection.
That is all we ever get to know about Kay and Benjamin. Minot is not interested in their characters, only in their “relationship,” insofar as non-characters can be said to have a relationship. They were lovers, it turns out, for three tortured years, but during that time Benjamin could never bring himself to break up with his longtime and long-suffering girlfriend, Vanessa. Finally Kay, fed up with waiting, put an end to the affair. Now, a few years later, they meet again for an afternoon of sexual abandon that means something quite different to each of them.
Minot, born in 1956, belongs (as do I) to a generation that grew up being told that men and women, contrary to assumptions the human race had made for millennia, were essentially the same; their apparent differences were due merely to cultural conditioning and gender stereotyping. Ever since the intellectual tide turned in the 1980s, we have been painstakingly rediscovering the obvious, aided by accessible and simplistic documents like Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, of which Rapture is only a marginally higher-brow version.
The narrative veers from Kay's point of view to Benjamin's and back again, the better to illustrate the fundamental differences between male and female. Kay and Benjamin represent contrasting aspects of femininity and masculinity rather than actual people:
This was a whore's job, after all. The more degraded she felt, the more saturated with sex, and happier. She was dissolving into a sex personality, there to be used by him whenever he wanted. She was not particularly feeling his manly strength at the moment, he was not even moving, but she was aware it was in him. It was in him somewhere, that driving urge to overpower her.
Shades of Heathcliff! In Minot's scheme Woman uses sex to “commune,” Man to “conquer.” Another point of difference is in what we have come to call “confrontational style”: When it came to whether he should leave Vanessa, for instance, or even tell her that he is seeing someone else, Benjamin was, “as he said, taking other things into consideration. He called those things obligation and loyalty. To Kay they looked like avoidance and denial.”
Minot tries, or pretends, to give the hapless Benjamin equal time with Kay, but in the end she vindictively lets him fester in the personal hell his passivity and faithlessness have created. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that she is simply prejudiced against him for being male. Rapture comes off as jaundiced and pissed-off, as though the author wanted personally to punish an unsatisfactory lover. It is also full of shockingly banal and shoddy writing. The following is typical:
She felt how wound up she'd been. What relief this was. She was tired of having to look out for herself, tired of beating through thick brush. She didn't realize how tired. Trying to sort out the right way to behave if she was going to get where she wanted ultimately. Which wasn't likely this. At least, that's what she'd convinced herself of.
Huh? What teacher, much less editor, would let this prose get by? And the grammar is shaky, too: Minot describes her characters—more than once—as “in thrall with” rather than “in thrall to” a lover; claims that instincts “were easily mistaken with [rather than “for”] desires and fears”; Benjamin cracks “some usual jokes”; and Kay finds penises “foreboding”—when surely she means “forbidding.” Let's hope the powers-that-be at Knopf slipped the new edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage into Minot's Christmas stocking—and into her editor's as well.