FOR THE REVIEWER, the main problem posed by a novel like Susan Fromberg Schaeffer's Madness of a Seduced Woman is one of classification. Schaeffer's literary credentials are certainly impressive: English professor; critic (she wrote the first PhD dissertation on Nabokov); poet; and author of four earlier novels, one a best-seller, all of them quite properly received as serious fiction. These works helped to establish her as a writer known for her genuinely original voice, at once light, versatile, stylish and informed by a sharp eye and ear for the life-giving detail. Her Jewish novels in particular --Falling, Anya and Love--are as distinctive and authentic in their social observation as anything of Malamud's.
So what is one to make of The Madness of a Seduced Woman? "(It) is literature," claims Cynthia Ozick on the dust-jacket. Yet the eyebrow-raising title, the plot, the characters and the style all conspire to place it firmly in the category of popular romantic fiction, at best a dubious sub-genre of "literature." Gone is the tight, even cerebral wittiness of Falling or Love, the tapestry-like historical breadth of Anya and Time in Its Flight. Instead, we are given an old-fashioned story of passion and betrayal and madness which, if literary comparisons are to be made, reminds me less of Anna Karenina than of the story of Jean Harris, as told in the confessional style of the best modern journalism.
Set in rural Vermont and Montpelier around the turn of the century, the novel gradually closes in-- from the perspective of three generations--upon the figure of young, beautiful, doomed Agnes Dempster and her fatal love for the handsome stonecutter, Frank Holt. There is no point in revealing the plot in detail, because the book's success depends almost completely upon its maintenance of suspense, but suffice it to say that it entails passion, jealousy, murder, a trial and an asylum very much in the manner of the 19th-century French naturalistic writers whom Susan Fromberg Schaeffer vaguely aspires to emulate. In a way, Schaeffer lays her literary reputation on the line with this book. Having shown herself accomplished in various modes of contemporary fiction, she now produces a 19th-century romantic blockbuster (adding a couple of "explicit" scenes scarcely permissible in Zola's day) which is surprisingly authentic in theme and tone, right down to the absence of irony, the endless descriptive set pieces, the idea of love as fate, and the creaking framework of metaphor upon which this idea is draped. "Yes, if they had kept me under lock and key for five years," speculates the heroine, "perhaps I wouldn't have been so willing to throw myself into the vicious cogs and wheels of passion." Machines, clocks, webs, wheels--all images of entrapment and doom--pop up throughout the book with about as much subtlety as movable stage-props in a village melodrama.
Yet it must be said that, in its chosen mode, The Madness of a Seduced Woman is extremely successful. It is too long, the narrator/heroine babbles on like a brook, the language is for the most part pedestrian, but, despite all this, it is an uncannily gripping story. Susan Fromberg Schaeffer is, as her earlier novels also showed, a born storyteller, with a rare ability to transport the reader bodily into her various fictional worlds, all criticism suspended. Near the beginning of Anya, she writes, "If you are going to learn a person's life, then, like learning a language, you must start with the little things, the little pictures, the tiny, square images, like rooms, that will grow into a film, but not like any film, one you have been in as an extra." That is an excellent description of the technique of her latest novel also. The ill-matched lovers in their shabby boardinghouse become so real that the outcome of their affair may haunt and depress you-- as it did me--for several days. One broods along with Agnes over her strange and unhappy childhood; walks out with her in the snowy gaslit Montpelier streets; and frets for the injustice done to the good name of poor Frank Holt (his eyes "the color of the creek bed when the sun shone on it"), a more genuine victim than Agnes, if seduction rather than desertion is what's really at issue.
And one is quietly forced to ponder again the old conundrum of love. Is the ideal of romantic passion just an invitation to delusion and madness after all? Who is to define the wavering lines between love and obsession, fruitful commitment and destructive dependence, sane and insane, in the first place? These are the kinds of questions usually brought to our attention in the sensational trials of those charged with so-called crimes of passion and, indeed, much of the novelty and power of this book stems from its attempt to re-create from the inside, as it were, the life of such a "criminal." (It is supposedly based on an actual case). If this is to appeal rather shamelessly to the voyeur in each of us, there is nevertheless nothing frivolous about Susan Fromberg Schaeffer's undertaking. In the end, The Madness of a Seduced Woman may do her reputation no harm, although I suspect it will not impress the literati.