on September 3, 2008
After reading her first two brilliant novels, "Kinflicks" and "Original Sins", I found myself wondering why Lisa Alther is not more highly regarded by the American literary establishment; several of her books are currently out of print. Perhaps the fact that she is a woman may have something to do with it; most of America's current literary lions (Updike, Irving, Roth, etc.) are male, whereas other talented female writers (Alison Lurie being a good example) are also neglected.
Having now read Alther's third novel "Other Women" I can now understand something of the reason for the decline in her reputation, because it does not come close to living up to the promise of her first two books. The book is set in New England; unlike its two predecessors it makes no reference to Alther's own Southern heritage. References to events such as the Jonestown massacre and the Sino-Vietnamese border war date the action to the winter and spring of 1978-79, although there are occasional slips. Caroline's children, for example, would not at that date have been able to inform her about the plot of "Raiders of the Lost Ark", as that movie was not released until 1981. (The book was written in 1984, some years after the events it describes).
The main character is Caroline Kelly, a 35 year old nurse. Caroline is an extreme pessimist, caught in an ideological misery trap. She believes that life- her own life and human life in general- is pointless and miserable and that she, and everyone else, is doomed to an existence of unhappiness and suffering. She has tried what Alther calls "all the standard bromides", including marriage, true love, communism, feminism, God, sex, work, alcohol and drugs, but each "enchanted for a while, but ultimately failed to stave off the despair".
At the beginning of the novel Caroline sees herself as being left with only two options- psychotherapy or suicide. The book tells the story of Caroline's course of treatment with her therapist, Hannah Burke, and as this progresses we learn something of her past. She is a divorcee, having left her doctor husband Jackson for a left-wing radical named David Michael, but this affair proved to be short-lived. She is currently in a lesbian relationship with a colleague, Diana, but this is also proving unsatisfactory; although the two women still live under the same roof, the sexual side of the relationship has all but come to an end and Diana is pursuing another, younger, girl. Like Ginny and some of Alther's other female characters, Caroline is bisexual; indeed, Alther seems to take the line that all people, or at least all women, are essentially bisexual, effectively leaving them free to choose their own sexuality. (A line that will not endear her to many in the gay community).
The aim of Hannah's therapy is to enable Caroline to take control of her life by coming to terms with her past. Caroline was the child of well-to-do, middle-class parents, politically and socially liberal but remote authority-figures, unable to cater for their children's emotional needs. The main result of their liberalism has been to inculcate their daughter with ineradicable guilt feelings about her privileged upbringing. Hannah sees Caroline's subsequent life of falling into a predictable pattern (by the end of the novel this has become capitalised as The Pattern) of clinging to substitute mother or father-figures and then being rejected by them, although it seemed to me that Hannah's psycho-analytic theories were not always borne out by the facts of Caroline's life. (For example, it was Caroline who left Jackson, not vice versa, largely because she could not accept that the needs of his patients might sometimes have to come before her own. She also walked out on David Michael, although with greater justification given that he was a serial womaniser). The book ends, according to the blurb on the back of my edition, with Caroline "gradually realising that she is being healed", although as she was still actively contemplating suicide in the penultimate chapter this healing is obviously a slow process.
Alther's first two novels have serious themes, but they are often very funny, and she is capable of writing with a brilliant, satirical wit. In "Other Women", however, there is very little wit or humour; the tone is deeply serious throughout, although some of the characters cry out to be satirised. The Lisa Alther of "Kinflicks" would have had great fun at the expense of David Michael, the sort of bourgeois fun-revolutionary who has taken up left-wing politics in order to increase his chances of scoring with women, or of Caroline's earnest, do-gooding parents. The main problem with the book is that Caroline is so difficult to like. In "Kinflicks" Alther had created, in Ginny Babcock, one of the most likeable heroines in modern literature- often infuriating, often wrongheaded, always fascinating. It is difficult to believe that the depressing figure of Caroline could have had the same creator. Reading the book was like spending several hours in the company of an acquaintance one would much rather avoid, not because they are wicked or malicious but because they positively radiate gloom and despondency.
Alther made something of a return to form with her fourth novel, "Bedrock", an amusing satirical look at New England small town life. The main character in that book, Clea Shawn, is an older (but not necessarily wiser) version of Ginny Babcock, although her best friend Elke is clearly an older version of Caroline. I have not read Alther's most recent novel, "Five Minutes in Heaven", but of her first four "Other Women" is by far the weakest.