Book #17: When She Was Good, by Philip Roth

Begun: 2/16/2011
Finished: 3/9/2011
Format: Paperback
Rating: 4/5

There’s an old metaphor about frogs and boiling water.  The saying goes that if you toss a frog into boiling water, it’ll jump right back out, but if you put a frog into cold water and gradually heat it up, the frog will let itself be boiled alive because it doesn’t realize what’s happening until it’s too late. Well, I am that frog, and this book was the water.

In a post about a week ago I said that this book wasn’t particularly compelling and that I was just getting through it to make it to Portnoy’s Complaint.  And it starts out pretty innocuously.  A girl named Lucy Nelson hates her alcoholic father, who can’t seem to be responsible, resents her mother for staying with him, and passes judgment on everyone around her including her beloved grandfather and grandmother, at whose house she and her parents live.  The situation worsens as Lucy grows up, is impregnated by and marries Roy Brassart, and embarks on family life.

Lucy is for certain self-righteous all along, but as the story goes on and her personality becomes more and more polarized, I started to think damn, you cannot win with this woman.  Her husband is batted around in the eddies of her anger and moral outrage.  No one is safe from her judgment, and anyone who displeases her is unceremoniously cut off and declared an evil person.  It isn’t until the final twenty or so explosive pages that we see how deranged Lucy has truly become.

Roth has been accused many times of misogyny.  I don’t like to assign agendas to authors, I’d prefer for them just to show the characters they’re showing in all their flawed, crazy glory, but it bears mentioning that Lucy is Roth’s only female protagonist in thirty-nine novels, and his female characters rarely come off very well.  Then again, not many of the male characters come off very well, either.


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