In "Household Words," Joan Silber has produced a deeply moving account of a widow's ability to cope with loss and pain. Set in New Jersey in the 1940s and '50s, this novel begins as a conventional portrait of the suburban American dream, broken by the husband's early death. Silber's writing is strong and richly detailed, spotlighting the drama inherent in ordinary lives without sentiment or pretension.
Leonard and Rhoda Taber have a comfortable home and two daughters. He is a pharmacist, she has taught French. Although their lives seem unexceptional, they are not trivial. Silber does not confuse circumstance with inner qualities; she views her characters seriously and with respect. Leonard is intelligent, thoughtful, gentle, a man who does his job well and cares about people. Rhoda is vibrant and blunt. She is both suburban housewife and Jewish mother, but free of the comic, interfering or unfulfilled stereotypes these designations sometimes imply. Her voice is authenic and peppered with wisecracks, yet she has dignity because Silber treats her with dignity.
"Household Words" focuses on the events ad responses that shape Rhoda's inner life and challenge her ability to survive. Silber does not impose disaster on her characters, but allows the drama of death and loss, illness, aging and tension between generations to unfold naturally. When Rhoda's mother dies of cancer, she continues her daily routine, but while polishing furniture "she had an absurd and painful urge to show her mother what she was doing." After Leonard's death, she misses the shape of his body, thinks with the inflections of his voice. Grief does not stop her from living, but it subtly, persistently colors all she does.
Nonetheless, Rhoda is forceful, straightforward and sensible, with a remarkable sense of her own worth and ability. "To show any respect for forces of fate outside your own will was . . . to ask for trouble by giving it a name." She relies on no help from friends or family, although she accepts ther concern. When a friend praises her for "'going on,'" she replies, "'Where else is there to go?'" She lives with things as they are, preserved from self-pity if not from anger and sorrow.
Although she can not quell them, Rhoda does not share her bitter, fightened feelings. She sees other people as more foolish than herself. Her friends are frivolous, willing to put up with insensitive, inadequate husbands. They try to match her with a series of humiliating would-be partners: "men with bad teeth, loud ties, overdue bills." At a mountain resort she meets Moe, who interests her and arouses some passion, but after a few months' courtship, she judges him course and emotionally sloppy. Her father is a silent, difficult man growing senile. Suzanne, her eldest daughter, is sullen, self-absorbed and abusive, engaging her in ugly fights. Rhoda is detached even from Clare, the mild daughter who tries to cheer her with small attentions when a critical liver ailment adds a new trial to her life.
Silber catches the essence of these characters through their physical attitudes as well as their actions. When Rhoda enters her dim living room after taking a nap on the day of Leonard's funeral, "alone by the buffet was a tall, stoop-shouldered shape in a hideous shiny black suit. He nodded over his paper plate; he had waited for her . . . her father." Such images are both familiar and strikingly accurate, said and solitary. Yet in the awkward sometimes ritual attempts Rhoda's family and friends make at kindness, there is affirmation of the loyalty and care that connects people an an innate decency that gives meaning to their lives.
Rhoda can not take from this as much as she might. The same self-reliance that sustains her limits the fullness of her life after Leonard dies. As her illness grows worse, she withdraws even from her children. Lying in a hospital bed she feels "like a stone . . . the weight of her own stubborness, her own unchanging shape. Resistant, almost crystalline . . . events had worn her but they hadn't altered her, so that she had had the hardest of lives, boring her way obdurately through circumstance."
Ultimately Rhoda exults in her forceful character. Although it can not stop her dying, it has marked the world around her. Her strength preserves her integrity and keeps "Household Words" from disintegrating into melodrama. Despite the excess of troubles, this is an optimistic book. It concentrates not on sorrow, but on the life-affirming capacity to take on loss and still continue with sense and self-respect.