IN THE PAST DECADE, increased legal rights and heightened cultural status have led many women to believe that the everyday details of their experience and their basic emotional responses are sufficiently important and significant to be expressed in novel form.
This is the good news, and it is also the bad news. The trend has produced an important and shapely body of work, but there have been what seem like endless descriptions of the agony of domesticity and the ecstasy of pay checks.
Typically, Susan Isaac's second novel Close Relations -- her first, Compromising Positions , sold a million copies -- focuses on a bright-but-confused woman in her mid-thirties struggling to come to terms with: (a) her commitment to a high-pressure job, speechwriter to William Paterno, president of the council of the City of New York; (b) the kind of sexual appetites which have traditionally been a male prerogative -- at least in literature, and (c) a difficult relationship with a gorgeous man who allows her to live with him, but considers marriage out of the question.
The story of Marcia Green is set against a background which is almost a genre by now -- the comic Jewish family intent on pressuring her to stop fooling around with that gorgeous creep (needless to say, he's Irish Catholic), and settle down with a nice Jewish boy. "Who does she think she is, Miss Last Hurrah," Marcia sums up their attitude, "chasing around with all those Democrats, getting older and older and her uterus shriveling to the size of a walnut so she can be guaranteed not to have a fmily and live a normal life?"
There is rich Uncle Julius who "did not seem comfortable with people who could not afford fur," Aunt Estelle, "she looked rich and well turned out, like an expensive roast," her perfect zaftig cousin Barbara who has already married a nice (rich) Jewish boy and has two lovely children, and her mother Hilda, a quietly reproachful intellectual widow who doesn't seem to approve of anything -- especially not anything about Marcia.
Isaacs deals with this situation with borscht-belt humor which borders on the manic. In the opening scene, the WASP governor of New York chokes to death on a knish handed to him by a constituent at a rally in Rego Park, Queens. But it also makes you laugh. She has a lively eye for detail and a tart descriptive style that make this same old story easy to read. "The only things big about Paterno were his eyes, huge and a little protuberant, his great forehead and his stomach," she writes. "He had a huge appetite, and all the food he ate seemed to settle in his belly, as if the rest of his small body was not equipped to assimilate it. If a frog who'd been kissed by a princess turned into a man, he would look like Paterno and not like the prince in fairy tales."
Although the story is punctuated with flashbacks describing a variety of workaday sexual encounters -- he did this to me, he did that to me -- Marcia's sexual attraction to the gorgeous Jerry Morrissey is both lyrical and funny. Her lust for him, described in language which limns the cliches of male lust, is sad (because you know he doesn't love her) and hilarious (because of Isaac's witty tone). "The white light from the street lamp illuminated only the upper part of his face, so that the bottom was in shadows, emphasizing the pouty fullness of his lower lip, deepening the cleft in his chin. 'Of course I'm not mad at you,'" Marcia says to him.
She also succeeds in nailing the hothouse vulgarity and oppressive pressure tactics of a certain kind of Jewish family once and for all (I hope). And her main character, in spite of a lot of kvetching, is alive enough so that it's easy to care what happens to her, and a cinch to be pleased when what happens is better than anyone (especially Hilda) could have imagined.
But here is the bad news about this funny, readable book. Isaac's story seems to be constructed entirely to gratify the reader's simplest desires. If she had an original point to make, or a section of real experience that she wanted to describe, it's been lost in the shuffle. This is a book with three happy endings, all of them a little hard to believe. Everyone gets her man, and everybody turns out to be right -- even Uncle Julius! There is one good thing about plots which aim to please the reader though. They do.