Susan Richards Shreve Nina Elston - Essay

Nina Elston

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.