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When She Was Good Paperback – International Edition, January 31, 1995

3.5 out of 5 stars 24 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


"High, careful tragedy, nasty as life, and Roth emerges...as a Dreiser who can write!" —Stanley Elkin

"Roth is a living master." —Harold Bloom, The New York Review of Books

From the Inside Flap

In this funny and chilling novel, the setting is a small town in the 1940s Midwest, and the subject is the heart of a wounded and ferociously moralistic young woman, one of those implacable American moralists whose "goodness" is a terrible disease.
When she was still a child, Lucy Nelson had her alcoholic failure of a father thrown in jail. Ever since then she has been trying to reform the men around her, even if that ultimately means destroying herself in the process. With his unerring portraits of Lucy and her hapless, childlike husband, Roy, Roth has created an uncompromising work of fictional realism, a vision of provincial American piety, yearning, and discontent that is at once pitiless and compassionate.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Rei Int edition (January 31, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679759255
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679759256
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,232,728 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

In the 1990s Philip Roth won America's four major literary awards in succession: the National Book Critics Circle Award for Patrimony (1991), the PEN/Faulkner Award for Operation Shylock (1993), the National Book Award for Sabbath's Theater (1995), and the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for American Pastoral (1997). He won the Ambassador Book Award of the English-Speaking Union for I Married a Communist (1998); in the same year he received the National Medal of Arts at the White House. Previously he won the National Book Critics Circle Award for The Counterlife (1986) and the National Book Award for his first book, Goodbye, Columbus (1959). In 2000 he published The Human Stain, concluding a trilogy that depicts the ideological ethos of postwar America. For The Human Stain Roth received his second PEN/Faulkner Award as well as Britain's W. H. Smith Award for the Best Book of the Year. In 2001 he received the highest award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Gold Medal in Fiction, given every six years "for the entire work of the recipient." In 2005 The Plot Against America received the Society of American Historians Award for "the outstanding historical novel on an American theme for 2003--2004." In 2007 Roth received the PEN/Faulkner Award for Everyman.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
There are few pleasures comparable to reading good prose. Sharply defined characters are to be expected of any writer worthy of publication; similarly, a good plot is rudimentary to decent storytelling. The fact that these nuts-and-bolts components of fiction are singled out for praise in contemporary fiction is an indication of the alarmingly sharp decline of basic literacy over the past 40 years. Good prose, on the other hand, is the result of talent. The prose of When She Was Good is a delight, and well worth enduring the novel's at times heavy-handed critique of Midwestern religiosity and morality in general.
The novel, an odd combination of satire and naturalism, follows three generations of the Nelson family, whose Scandanavian roots are apparently responsible for the ferociously puritanical streak in the work's tragic main character, young Lucy. Roth's insistence on making Lucy a symbol of "putritan America" leads to an unfortunately hyperbolic ending in what is otherwise a carefully constrained character study of an ordinary family dealing with alcoholism. Having attained the enlightenment of adolescence, Lucy decides to deal with her father's drinking harshly and unforgivingly, setting in motion a series of catastrophes that include her own forced marriage to an endearingly naive and well-intentioned young man -- by far the book's most sympathetic character -- Roy Bassart.
This is excellent story-telling, sharp and clear and vivid. Not every reader will share Roth's point of view or his characterizations, but my, what talent.
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Format: Paperback
even in the work of such a crafty writer as Philip Roth, that the "roundness" of a character (which we are taught to admire and comment on in our reviews) takes on an even higher dimension of reality in order to make its (her, in this case) presence felt. To put it another way: if Tricky of Roth's Our Gang is essentially flat--that is, 2-dimensional--then his Alexander Portnoy is very round (he undergoes change), and consequently more real.

In When She Was Good, we are introduced to that rare 4-dimensional character, and her name is Lucy Nelson. Besides going through changes, she absorbs momentum; a sort of manic kineticism acts on her while she acts on her immediate circle of friends and family. Because of this treatment, and some intriguing structural techniques that ought to remind the reader of Faulkner, the "same" Lucy who evokes deep sympathy eventually demands of us that we dismiss or even ridicule her, until this amazing last page...

To deal with a 4-dimensional character (Hamlet is another example of one) requires a touch of literary mysticism. We must treat the novel as a reality, a chunk of life, instead of a mere representation. Like the main characters of great films (e.g. Citizen Kane), Lucy Nelson bothers our categorization-impulse by putting her internal contradictions in high relief. And she does this without the mimetic advantages that a film possesses.

On the whole, When She Was Good is not Roth's best novel; we do not expect it to be, when we see the photo of Roth (apparently in his mid twenties) on the flap.
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Format: Paperback
Those of us that have seen a friend or family member in a bad marital situation may want to look away when they read this book. "When She Was Good" is almost too realistic at times, which can make it uncomfortable to read. It is a sad and painful story, yet it is hard to dismiss as a bad story.

Lucy, the main character of the story, grows up in a home with an abusive alcoholic mother. Seemingly on top of the world, she becomes pregnant during her freshman year of college by Roy. Roy is a somewhat doltish man who has just returned from two years of military service. Convincing Roy to "do the right thing" and marry her seems to begin the downfall of her character. Once contemplating becoming a nun, Lucy has become a controlling wife. In a strange twist of fate, Lucy evolves into all that she loathed in her father in the respect that her own child finds her intolerable and her husband leaves her. The situation mirrors her father being run out of her mother's house.

Lucy is a deeply flawed character that readers will have difficultly liking. Lucy is initially a very moral charcter but has difficuly seeing her faults and eventual backslide. Because Roy and his family are even more vilainous, readers may have difficulty identifying with anybody in the story. Only when Lucy reaches her breaking point does the reader begin to feel sympathy. But knowing Lucy created her own problems, some readers may still have trouble feeling sorry for her.

I really have had trouble deciding if I like this book. I am a fan of many of Roth's other works, yet I find some of his books to be uncomfortably personal and intruding. This is a credit to Roth as a writer even if some readers may not like the feeling of his writing.
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Format: Paperback
If Roth's novel, When She Was Good, has a moral, it concerns the dangers of self-righteousness. It reveals that a strategy of magnifying the faults of others and refusing to acknowledge our own is a greater fault, even in a category by itself. This defect, though prevalent among us humans, separates us from reality (or truth, one of the protagonist's, Lucy Nelson, favorite words). It leaves us incapable to forgive others, why can't he/she be more like me, and strangely deletes the possibility to forgive ourselves.

The idea that this is a misogynistic novel belies the above reviewer's view of women, not Roth's. If Lucy Nelson is a prototype woman, then God help us all. Clearly she is not. Rather, this character reveals a part of each of us. And remember, although Lucy is the hyperbolic version of sanctimoniousness, she is not alone. The grandfather reveals his condemning thoughts while waiting for his son-in-law's bus; Roy, Lucy's husband, rants about his ignorant professors and faults them for his own failures; etc... "This is humanity. This is you. This is me,"--seems to be the author's point. And thankfully he reminds us at the end that change and grace are possible, even if it comes via struggling, imperfect human love, and may have bitter-sweet results.

Here is a case of fiction doing what it does best--delighting with prose while shedding light on the non-fiction of our lives.
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