"WHAT DO women want?" Freud asked. If he had lived to read The Woman Who Lived in a Prologue by Nina Schneider, he would have known.
This extraordinary first novel, written by a 67-year-old grandmother, affirms the value of age and experience and reminds us that novel-writing is one of those rare professions to which one may come better late.
"Actuarily speaking (and my late husband often did), my time is up," the protagonist, now an old woman, says as she finally makes time in her life to begin her first novel. "But I'm taking off. I'm eager to discover my own life, whatever that is. I have survived the unrelenting authority of family needs, the petulant tyranny of domesticity, the sensual abnegation of matrimony, the prodigal cruelty of offspring, the aberrant gratifications of adultery, the whimsical expectations of those tombstone angels, my grandchildren; the entire womanly life for which I was promised I would pass into the land of the self-possessed adult. And I tell you, I have been lied to. . . . Under the guise of privilege I have been robbed of a life I could call my own."
Married too young in order to please her parents, she has given birth to four children, lost one son to war and another to an appetite for violence uncondoned by civilized society, aborted her first and last pregnancies, endured nightly rejection from her proper husband, found ecstasy edged with cruelty with an artist lover, and, in a glorious final act of assertion, escorted her grandson (posing as her chauffeur) across the border into Canada to escape the draft.
In Canada, free at last from domestic responsibility and emotional entanglement, she sits down to her typewriter and prays, "Give me time . . . My past has been a Prologue. I'm not ready to be an Epilogue."
In the case of Nina Schneider, the prayer has been answered. She has been given not only time but the talent to use it richly. If she never writes another word, The Woman Who Lived in a Prologue is the achievement of a lifetime.
It is no coincidence that the majority of great women writers have been childless: the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf. But contemporary women are beginning to realize that, far from being a handicap, their sex makes a wealth of unique experience available to them. The logistics are undeniably difficult, but the woman who survives marriage and motherhood to write about it will discover that, hidden within a range of experience men have tried through the ages to dismiss as too trivial for literary use, are subjects of epic proportions.
Nina Schneider takes her themes and images from everyday female experience: cooking, gardening, mothering. Her intimate knowledge of the facts from which her metaphors spring gives solid reality and enormous sensual power to her fiction. m
And yet she is also able to laugh at her preoccupation with domestic detail. A night of unrestrained physical passion ends with a meticulously prepared breakfast tray. Cooking for her children, our heroine stuffs a yellowed New York Times Book Review into her wood-burning stove. As it bursts into flames, a single sentence leaps out at her: "In each of us there exists one novel."
"A novel in me? There wasn't enough for a Mother's Day postcard," she laments.
Her husband Adam, whose only sins were of omission, is a remarkably real character, and the account of their last years together is one of the most moving passages in the book.
"Too bad. Just about when we were getting the hang of living together -- not in an imaginary realm, succeeding or failing in comparison with fabricated existences -- but each in our own isolation; just when we were quite prepared to have things go badly and had developed the fortitude to accept our malformed, stunted natures and to hobble along together, he died."
A published poet, Nina Schneider brings a gift for language and imagery to her prose. Unfortunately, however, she fails to employ a poet's economy. She is a spendthrift with words, and the book is the poorer for it.
As a writer, she could learn from her hard-earned experience as a gardener. "I was dividing chrysanthemums, thinking how many years of gardening it had taken for me to learn to be ruthless, excise the worn heart of each clump, discard, not crowd the bed with every dubious possibility but to set out firmly only stocks vigorous enough to fulfill their cycle with bloom."
With a ruthless editor, this book would reach a much wider audience. It is entitled to both.