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The Philip Roth Reader: When He Was Good He Was Very, Very Good -- and Something of a Feminist

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Ah, the Sixties. The dawn of the modern feminist movement, the awakening of an entire generation to possibilities beyond home and hearth, a societal sea change documented by such icons of gender enlightenment as Betty Friedan, the Boston Women's Health Collective, and Philip Roth.

For who is Lucy Nelson, the heroine of his 1967 novel When She Was Good, if not a fledgling and tragically failed feminist? Her essential crime is ambivalence about almost every aspect of the script she's supposed to follow, from honor thy father and mother through love, honor, and obey until death do us part. Lucy chafes against her life until every inch of her is raw, and then -- no spoiler alert; we find this out before the story unfolds -- she loses.

Her extended family includes a drunken father, an emotional hostage of a mother, a childish husband, and an assortment of judgmental in-laws that would send any sane woman looking for an alternative. And yet an esteemed male critic referred to her as "hysterical" in his review at the time, a word, it strikes me, that men tend to use to describe women they'd rather not bother with.

But she is Roth's only female protagonist, so I say that perhaps she deserves -- the book deserves -- another look. Lucy's an angrier and only slightly less lost version of Letting Go's Theresa, each of them unexpectedly pregnant because of a guy far more interested (okay, this is Roth) in his own sexual satisfaction than in the potential consequences thereof. Check out current teenage pregnancy statistics; this is not an unusual or dated tale. It's Lucy who's unusual, particularly for 1967, a squirming, frustrated prisoner of the rural Midwest who might seem hysterical to a critic, but to too many women of a certain age just seems trapped.

I too often want to reach into the book, tell her to shut up, and shake her until she comes to her senses and does something -- but she can't, which is the point.

Lucy was a college freshman when her life collapsed. The Lucy Nelsons of today, far too many of them, think of feminism as the manual typewriter of social change -- limited, obsolete, no longer necessary, their doctrinaire mothers or grandmothers having been replaced by a far more efficient and civilized model of the modern woman, that being themselves. They're as embarrassed by talk of women's rights as they would be by hippie beads or those early dress-for-success suits, seemingly oblivious of the fact that we're entering Round 10 of the abortion wars, as a mostly-male bunch of legislators toss choice around as though it were exclusively their game to play.

Required reading: When She Was Good, which can be reduced, for those who prefer sound bites, to the story of a girl who had no choice. Which can be reduced, for those who embrace the simplistic equation of Roth = woman-hater, to the single chapter where Lucy Nelson goes to a sanctimonious doctor to ask for help and gets the equivalent of a door slammed in her face. Who's the object of his restrained scorn in that scene?

Read it regardless of how you feel about choice, for that matter, to get a solid look at Roth writing about women with compassion and rage, and hang onto that notion until we get to American Pastoral, twenty-one years later.

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm sensitive to the perceived gender slight and capable occasionally of the knee-jerk response, a side effect of belonging to the transition generation that had to give a lot of conscious thought to constructing an adult identity. The list of people I'm hot-wired to bust is a fairly long one, including but not limited to anyone who does one of the following things to women: Condescends, objectifies, ridicules, trivializes, and so forth.

So I am one of the last three people on earth to be a Roth apologist. As I read the early books, I'm starting to think of myself, instead, as a Roth expansionist. I wish that we could mount a little experiment and somehow get a bunch of people to read When She Was Good without knowing who wrote it. I'm willing to bet that a good number of those assumption-deprived readers would say the author was a woman.

Karen Stabiner's novel, Getting In, will be published in March 2010. Visit www.karenstabiner.com or write to her at kstabiner@gmail.com.

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