Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Capturing younger characters in fiction.

I'm always alert for a new book of special interest to the senior readers of my Book Report column, and when I learned that American author Susan Isaacs had a new book out, I was delighted. Around 1970 I read her first novel, Compromising Positions, and since then have waited with anticipation for each new novel. Her witty, indomitable heroines (usually housewives, secretaries turned spies, teachers, historians, journalists) solve crimes and come across as real people while they do so. Isaacs' novels are more than mere mysteries, because of the roundness of the characters, (in the E.M. Forster sense) and the presence of subplots which either reinforce or contrast with the main plot.

As Isaacs grows older, her heroines have grown younger. As a writer aging faster than I like, I've observed this trend in her fiction with interest. Any writer, no matter where she is on the ladder of success, wants to write stories that appeal to the audience most likely to buy books. (Actually, stats show that middle aged and older women are the major book buyers, with women of all ages buying more books and reading more than men do.)

In my future novels, should I make my heroines young? Social mores and science and technology have changed drastically since I was young, and to write about my own youth is to write a historical novel.

My novel, An Amethyst Remembrance, was set in the 1970s, and my latest, Spelling Bee, shifts between the '60s and '70s and the recent past. In Memories Stick, my fourth mystery novel, I deliberately included a younger woman as well as a middle aged/older one so as to appeal to more than one age group.

Can a woman of a certain age successfully depict a younger woman of today? In As Husbands Go (NY, Scribner, 2010, $29.95 hc Canada), Isaacs seems to have tried too hard to portray a woman in her thirties who might appeal to other thirty-somethings. I have a couple of women friends in their thirties, and they aren't much like Isaacs' central character.

Her protagonist and detective figure, Susie, lives in luxury, seems obsessed with material things and scorns her mother's generation for social activism and lack of interest in possessions. Bridget Jones, the original chick-lit heroine, was much less privileged than Susie, and had more depth of character. Susie seems like an upscale version of the women on the decorating shows on the Women's Television Network. She is a floral designer, mother of four year old triplets, and wife of a plastic surgeon, Jonah. In the midst of a crisis over Jonah's disappearance, she pauses to focus on aspects of her home's interior decoration.

While As Husbands Go isn't Isaac's greatest novel, it has some appealing features. One is Susie's belief in her husband's fidelity and in the happiness of their marriage. When Jonah is found dead in an escort's Upper East Side apartment, she is convinced that he wasn't there for sex but was there on other business. She endures the raised eyebrows and derision of her friends and contacts, and their anger when she suggests that the police have arrested the wrong suspect.

The strongest character in this novael is Susie's grandmother, who is not a stereotypical cookie-baking grandma. Twice divorced, retired as a TV talk show hostess, a testament to hair dye and plastic surgery, Ethel flies to New York with her lawyer/companion Sparky to help and support Susie. At one point, when Susie asks Ethel for advice, the older woman says, "What should you do, ethically? Frankly, when people think of ethics, the name Ethel O'Shea doesn't usually leap to mind. I'll tell you one thing. Don't be put off by authority." In the end, Susie and Ethel both grow in self-confidence and self-respect.

Susan Isaacs has set such a high standard for herself in her blends of humour, romance and mystery and must be allowed a few flaws once in a while. While As Husbands Go isn't quite what I need for my books column, and although the central character seems a bit shallow, it is still entertaining.

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