15 March 2013

When She Was Good

by Philip Roth

Philip Roth is one of those authors that people have been telling me for ages I should read. I was visiting with one of my favorite families over the holidays, and I was once again implored to pick up a Roth novel and give it a go. I think, however, that in my zeal to load up my new Kindle, I may have picked the wrong one to start with. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it, because I did; it’s just that I didn’t finish it and have the irrepressible urge to read every single word he’s ever written.

From the inside book 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.”

Here’s the thing. I get the distinct feeling from all the reviews I’ve read that I’m supposed to dislike Lucy. For example, she’s described variously as chilling, controlling, unforgiving, inflexible, unsympathetic, and deeply flawed. I completely disagree with most of those descriptions, and I can’t decide if it’s because I missed something, or if it’s because I started out liking her and just refused to stop, or if it’s because I’ve had a few of those same things said about me and believe that maybe they’re not altogether negative characteristics to have.

Mostly, I guess, I think they’re one-dimensional observations about a character who is decidedly three-dimensional, and if we’re going to crucify Lucy for having a little bit of a nervous breakdown, then she also deserves to be recognized for her intellect and strength. There’s a scene where she’s sitting at her kitchen table, pregnant with her first child, watching her mother fall apart – again – not because she was beaten by her persistently drunk and unemployed husband, but rather because he left the house after the beating and hasn’t come back home. When he finally raps at the door, Lucy meets him there and does what her mother has never had the backbone to do for herself: she tells her father to leave and not to return. I reread those pages several times, struck not only by Roth’s description of such an awful, debilitatingly moving moment, but also by his ability to make me feel it from multiple perspectives at once. I felt Lucy’s exhilaration and adrenaline, but I also felt her mother’s shame and her father’s humiliation. It’s magnificently written, really.

I suppose, if I try really hard, I can see how some people may think that Lucy’s mean or hard-hearted, but…well, not really. What choice does she have? Her grandparents are classic hands-off enablers, her mother is a co-dependent victim and apparently not willing or able to change that, and Lucy spent her childhood watching the chaos around her and hoping for the best. Yes, she’s puritanical, but we see that all the time when children are parented by neglectful substance abusers. It’s no small wonder that she takes some pretty drastic action once she finally realizes that she’s an adult and can exercise some control over all the lazy, complacent people who have raised her.

I wish I had read this book in college because there are so many facets and intriguing little details that would have made for a great term paper. At the same time, I’m also relieved that the term paper part of my life is over.

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