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When She Was Good. Ugh. Or, When Not One Damn Character is Sympathetic. Published 1967. Read May 19 – 24, 2013.

Recommendation

Read it if you can handle the inevitable and don’t mind some stark melodrama and an extremely angry young woman. Don’t read it if you read to enjoy yourself or are looking for positive reinforcement of the redeeming nature of humanity.

Summary & Review

This is the tragic story of Lucy Nelson, Roth’s only female protagonist in 29 books. A protestant girl in late 40s small town America who fights every inch of her way through dysfunctional familial relationships with her drunkard father, meek mother, overly forgiving grandfather and fed-up selfish grandmother.  She hates pretense, stupidity and weakness. But that is all she encounters. She works hard at school and at the Dairy Bar to earn enough money and a scholarship to get the hell out of Liberty Center and start a new life on her own. A persistent older boy just out of the army gets in the way of her plans.

The story starts from the perspective of the grandfather, and then moves on to Roy the boyfriend. I was confused at first as to why Roth did this before switching to Lucy’s perspective, but as the story unfolds it becomes clear: by writing from their perspectives you are shown how weak-willed Lucy’s grandfather is and how delusional, stupid and inept the boyfriend is. If shown in the third person, their true hearts and minds would not be so clear. In this way Roth gives you no way out in terms of forgiveness for either of those characters, who could otherwise have been the most  sympathetic characters in the story.

At the outset I said not one character was sympathetic, but that’s wrong. Lucy appears unsympathetic; she makes wrong choices, is cruel, aggressive and controlling and borders on insanity. But she is a willfully independent young female surrounded by the attitudes and morals of the time in provincial small-town America, which become a desperate trap for this single-minded, powerful girl. For example, when her drunk father hits her mother Myra in the face with his belt Lucy calls the police and he is arrested. Instead of supporting her decision the whole family turns against her for the embarrassment the arrest will cause them in the community. Set today, the reactions would be different. Set just twenty years later, she could have been a champion of the women’s movement.

Roth’s energetic driving prose comes into the story when Lucy approaches, and steps over the edge, and it’s a wild ride at the end of the book.

Despite the characters and the awfulness, this is a compelling read. It’s like when you know something is going to be bad, but you can’t look away. Like that squirrel freshly crushed on the road I looked directly down at from my car window about a week ago. Yes it turned my stomach, but it was as real as it gets.

Culture

Roy’s a romantic, and likes to sing, here’s the songs referenced in the book:

_Dick Haymes, It’s A Grand Night For Singing
_Vaughn Monroe, There, I’ve Said It Again
_Margaret Whiting, A Tree In The Meadow
_Nat King Cole, Nature Boy
_Mel Blanc, Woody Woodpecker
_Ray Bolger, Once In Love With Amy
_Al Jolson, Anniversary Song
_Doris Day, It’s Magic
_Buddy Clark, Linda
_Spike Jones, Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit-Bag

Book Cover

The cover that most came up in my search and was the jacket on the original hard cover, was a very dated late 60s design, consisting of a head shot of a woman in violet monochrome and and the title in an Avant Garde-like display typeface. I chose this one instead because of the simple cropped photo of the female mouth, representing Lucy’s greatest tool in her fight, and the spot of blood which nicely hints at the emotional violence within the pages. What doesn’t work is the typeface, which is reminiscent of 70s romantic comedy, and the incredibly shocking line at the bottom of the book which reads, “A stunning portrait of the all-American bitch.” Talk about getting it totally wrong.

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