Susan Richards Shreve Essay - Critical Essays

Shreve, Susan Richards


Susan Richards Shreve 1939–

American novelist and short story writer.

Shreve's first novels, A Fortunate Madness and A Woman Like That, introduce her method of examining the psychological development of a female protagonist in terms of personal history and family relationships. Political and cultural trends add a new dimension to her later work. Children of Power, set in Washington during the censure of Senator Joseph McCarthy, provides insight into "McCarthyism." Her recent novel, Miracle Play, portrays several generations of an affluent Pennsylvania family. Julian Moynahan places the novel "well above the glut of saga fiction" and describes it as a "slide show on Eastern upperclass American social history, professionally arranged and projected."

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52 and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 5.)

Eileen Kennedy

["A Fortunate Madness" shares the characteristics of a spate of novels which have] appeared lately. Written by talented young women who have starred in creative writing classes taught by distinguished practitioners of the craft, these novels, thinly veiled autobiographies, perhaps, have as their characters: (1) a sensitive, brusque, truthful, attractive young woman who wars with her mother and affluent middle-class values; (2) lean, studiously literary husband who does not communicate with creative wife; (3) one child, the pulled wishbone in the husband-wife battle. The locale of these novels: graduate school classes and faculty parties; seedy Thrift-Shop-furnished apartments; the compulsory year abroad (usually England) so that the conflict in values can be underlined; and, finally, the idyllic nature scene in which the revelation about life's meaning occurs. The style: overwhelming use of dialogue, especially stichomythia (the reader has to go back to figure out which character says what); familiar brand names (the toy from F.A.O. Schwartz, the dress from Lord & Taylor's); complete absence of value judgments; a cool hard tone hiding a quivering sensibility …

[Susan Shreve] has written a novel that some contemporary women may feel expresses them. The character of Susanna seems intimately portrayed, but the indistinguishable male characters are weakly drawn. Too many of the plot situations seem banal….

Despite my caveats, I liked many things in this novel. I just wish it had explored with greater depth and intensity the ethical problems it suggests. Somewhere Gabriel Marcel says that most of us live in concentric circles of selfishness and that if life is to have meaning, we must move out of those circles. That's the big lesson [the protagonist] Susanna has to learn, and the sentimental, bland ending doesn't convince me that she has moved even slightly.

Eileen Kennedy, "Fiction: 'A Fortunate Madness'," in Best Sellers (copyright 1974, by the University of Scranton), Vol. 34, No. 9, August 1, 1974, p. 212.

Martin Levin

"I used to just let things happen to me," says the young widow who is the protagonist of Susan Shreve's appealing novel ["A Fortunate Madness".] "It wasn't necessary, I've found out." By the time Susanna MacPherson comes round to this enigmatic point of view, quite a bit has happened to her…. Mrs. Shreve describes these happenings with a sharp and sometimes twinkling eye nicely catching nuances of personality and habitat. In this impressionistic history, however, Susanna seems vaguer than her environment. We know what she feels, but are left sometimes wondering why. Nonetheless there are enough well-observed episodes in the novel to keep the reader engaged.

Martin Levin, "New & Novel: 'A Fortunate Madness'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by the New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 4, 1974, p. 27.

Katha Pollitt

[In "A Woman Like That"] Emily's mild, put-upon father strangles her mother, the "bright-eyed, brazen, beautiful" Jane, who has been flaunting her infidelities and general viciousness for years.

Emily,… a difficult, intense adolescent, saves her father by lying at his trial and then seeks to put her childhood behind her by becoming a mother herself….

Mrs. Shreve has striven hard for the Greek note of inexorable fate…. But she has pared her characters so far past the point of elemental simplicity that there's little left but the sort of tag whereby dancing on tables signifies devil-may-care abandon.

It doesn't matter so much that the plot itself is obvious, that we know brazen Jane will get her comeuppance but still destroy her daughter's life; what matters is that she is so one-dimensional we cannot believe in Emily's horror when in her madness she looks in the mirror and sees her mother's face. The utter seriousness with which Mrs. Shreve puts forward her stock figures lends an air of self-parody to the novel, which is increased by the "sensitive" prose in which it is written….

Emily herself is the book's one bright spot, and readers who keep track of such things will want to add her to their list of strong and independent heroines. She is damaged and angry but also cool and thoughtful, and she turns her pain into energy—for her work, for her child—with a lack of self-pity that enlists our sympathy. She seems too vital for this airless, doomful story, her sad end less the penalty for what her parents did than for what the novelist has failed to imagine.

Katha Pollitt, "A Doomful Daughter," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 10, 1977, p. 28.

Nina Elston

It may be almost always true that if you give a child a bad home you will get an adult who has got problems. But Susan Richards Shreve, in her second novel [A Woman Like That], treats it as a truth so luminous that no one is going to worry about the exact nature of cause and effect….

The plot itself is not, I think, too implausible…. But there are too many steps left out between the messed-up childhood and the messed-up adult. It is never quite clear why Emily was so frightened of making relationships. Was she afraid of being like her mother? Or did she feel that to love another man would be to abandon her father, as her mother so often did? Or was she afraid of the possessive nature created by her dispossessed childhood? All these things are suggested—and all could be true at once. But we never know how they are to be taken, since Ms Shreve just throws in odd bits of information—as though a jumble of bits and pieces could add up to a psychological portrait.

The slackness of the plot is part of a general self-indulgence which spoils a novel that could otherwise have been intelligent, at times even delicate. There is an obsessive use of sentimental vocabulary, often at the expense of sense: "She was not invulnerable, but careful, and, given the immense purpose of her unborn child, intact." When the opportunities for sentimentality and self-indulgence are absent the writing takes on a completely new tone, the heavy earnestness exchanged for a light, intelligent good humour.

Nina Elston, "All Messed Up," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3990, September 22, 1978, p. 1056.

Jonathan Penner

On December 2, 1954, Joseph Raymond McCarthy—swept from his committe chairmanship by a Democratic resurgence in the fall elections—was censured by his colleagues for conduct "contrary to Senate traditions." This novel [Children of Power] is set in Washington in that same watershed December.

Here we meet Joe McCarthy once more, now stripped for us by an omniscient narrator. If you have ever wondered what McCarthy dreamed, this is the place to find out. If you would like to know what he admitted to the priest in the confessional, you can read it here….

Apart from being made to yield … voyeuristic amusements, McCarthy figures here as an issue. He is a childhood friend of Sam Taylor, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and is welcome as Taylor's house guest despite their opposition on matters of principle. The central conflict of the novel lies in an attempt to force Sam Taylor to resign. His toleration of McCarthy is held up as the reason.

Which is, of course, pure "McCarthyism." A group calling itself the Syndicate is formed to topple Sam Taylor….

[The] Syndicate consists chiefly of high school kids, classmates of Sam Taylor's daughter, Natalia at Sidwell Friends school. In a novel that cuts freely back and forth between sets of people, told through a consciousness that fairly caroms among multiple points of view, Natalia is as close as we have to a...

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Jack Sullivan

Teeming with homilies and revelations, Children of Power is as moral a fiction as we've had in many a season….

When they are not being overburdened with epiphanies, Shreve's characters are utterly real…. The adolescents, who are caught between the grandiosity and the emptiness of their parents, are especially vividly drawn.

A past master of children's fiction, Shreve writes her most beguiling prose during the characters' many flashbacks to childhood. Her sentences become rhythmic, compact, and refreshingly undidactic…. It is the waning of childhood bedazzlement set against a Fifties backdrop of collapsing political and sexual relationships that makes Children of...

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"Children of Power" is a welcome addition to the pitifully small number of Washington novels whose aims and abilities transcend the journalistic. Susan Richards Shreve describes an administrative city, in a cold season and at a bad time, and the tones she uses are seldom lighter than gray. Her Washington has not yet been Hollywoodized; the glamour of the salons and the empyrean mentality of Georgetown do not figure. In focusing on the children's bureaucracy as she does, two birds fall to one stone. The operational nature of the city is seen in reflection, and—more important, in the end—the tensions, strengths and depths of the parent-child relationship are explored, to profound effect.


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Suzanne Freeman

[In Miracle Play] Susan Richards Shreve gives us a family in love with its own mythology. The Howells are rememberers. They are chroniclers. They have fitted out their Bible with extra pages between Genesis and Exodus and Leviticus, and it is here they keep their own parables and miracles … They are a family who live from event to event as consciously as actors go from scene to scene, and Shreve stages their story as deftly as if a curtain had dropped between chapters.

Both the settings and the characters of this book will be familiar to those who have read Shreve's other work. Her territory is roughly the region we know as "Middle Atlantic," stretching from Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C.,...

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Julian Moynahan

["Miracle Play"] is about the Howells family of Bucks County, Pa…. Despite all their ups and downs, as the book ends, in 1976, the Howells clan is still intact. That is the "miracle play" of the title—the miracle of the family's self-renewal despite the powerful centrifugal forces exerted by historical and cultural change, and by the many accidents and ills of life….

In the best parts of "Miracle Play" Susan Shreve can suggest how particular family events reflect significant social and cultural trends without losing the rich specificity of individual character and motive….

[The theme of male supremacy and victimization of the female in earlier American social history] is...

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