Susan Richards Shreve Katha Pollitt - Essay

Katha Pollitt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.