Monthly Archives: September 2011

Dear Dame Agatha Christie,

Since I graduated from college, I’ve gorged on your novels, especially those featuring Miss Jane Marple.  I was a new bride, a new teacher, and new to New Haven Connecticut, and I loved escaping to St. Mary Mead, the prototypical English village where Jane lives. When I first began following her adventures, I’d never heard the word feminism, but even so I just loved the way that wise woman turns the stereotype of the small-town spinster upside down and inside out.

Jane is a cynic and a sophisticate, always ready to believe the worst of seemingly good people, eager to check out her hunches, and determined to punish the evildoers she unmasks. She capitalizes on the sexist and ageist views others have of her to manipulate them into revealing information or otherwise doing her will. She may be graying and wear the decorous dresses and hats we associate with elderly British women, but her eyes and ears are sharp, and her lust for information rivals that of Sherlock. Jane is a classic ratiocinative sleuth wearing a shawl, a chapeau, and a friendly smile instead of a cape, a deerstalker hat, and an arrogant sneer.

Her sleuthing prowess is not the only thing about her that intrigued me back then though. I’d been groomed to attract a husband so I could become a wife and mother, goals that, once accomplished, would fulfill and sustain me in my undoubtedly dependent dotage. Any alternative life plan was unthinkable. But reading about Jane Marple made me think about it. Thanks to her, while reading student papers, burning supper, and doing laundry I dared to wonder “what if” I’d waited a bit to marry.  What if I weren’t putting a husband through grad school? If we didn’t have to live in New Haven? Would I have been able to get work that enabled me to write something besides lesson plans? What if I didn’t worry about my old age just yet? There is no indication that Miss Jane Marple views her single state, her childlessness, or her advanced age as liabilities. 

My own advancing age was, literally, another story.  Decades later my first drenching hot flash hit me with the force of a tsunami of sweat instigated by my dwindling estrogen supply. Dismayed by this soaking and all the follow-up ones and angered by the dearth of menopausal fictional protagonists, I invented such a personage. But I had no story for her, so she remained, sweating and forgetting only inside my head.

Then local politicians forced the first woman president of the community college where I taught to resign. They did so because she refused to hire their ill-prepared relatives and friends to fill academic posts. Faculty protests changed nothing, and I felt helpless. It occurred to me that by insisting on the resignation of this committed educational leader, the politicos had orchestrated her professional demise just as surely as if they had actually murdered her. I envisioned her crumpled body on the ground. Corny as it sounds, the instant I pictured this woman as a corpse, I asked myself, “What would Miss Marple do?” The answer was simple.  She’d expose the killers and bring them to justice. There was the story I needed and it was a mystery. The sweaty character hanging out in my head made her way onto the page as amateur sleuth Bel Barrett, a modern and menopausal version of Jane Marple.

 But writing mysteries like yours did not turn out to be as effortless as reading them. Jane and Hercule are familiar to millions all over the world. People who have never set foot in England know their way around St. Mary Mead and Bertram’s Hotel. Finally, your adroitly plotted puzzles appear seamless, the clues so deftly planted as to be invisible. I will never forget my astonishment at the end of my first reading of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. How had I, a student of The New Criticism, a decoder of Eliot and Faulkner for god’s sake, missed that? I still have much to learn from you about plotting and from Jane about aging, so I always have an excuse to reread your books. Thank you so much for them all.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under feminist fiction, mystery

Dear John Updike,

 I first encountered your work in The New Yorker in the early Sixties, but I got married anyway. Your take on marriage in Of the Farm, Couples and, of course, the Rabbit series validated my growing fear that the institution I was raised to aspire to was far from the safe haven I expected. It wasn’t as if my parents’ marriage had been blissful, but I figured they were the exception. My cool artsy husband would be different from my volatile lawyer dad, and I was nothing like my reserved and priggish mom. What could those two possibly know of love?

On our wedding day in 1962 when the rabbi solemnly proclaimed my groom, a student of architecture, to be the “architect of my destiny,” I felt a tiny twinge in my gut, but I blamed it on the August heat and the excitement of the occasion. Sadly, my gut was onto something because things went mostly downhill after that. It was only thanks to your books, especially Couples, that I knew I wasn’t alone. In Couples you dissect the marriages, mores, and misperceptions of a group of young marrieds just a bit older than we were who were tumbling in and out of what they called love with astonishing rapidity. In spite of or because of improved contraception, changing attitudes towards divorce, and the displacement of religion and its taboos by psychoanalysis, these folks were serially adulterous, duplicitous, self-deluded, and alcoholic.

Now I’d read Peyton Place as a teenager, so you weren’t the first author to bare the secrets of a community to me. What made the fictional town of Tarbox where Couples takes place and the novel itself different was twofold: the Sixties were different from the Fifties and you made Piet Hanema, the pivotal figure in Couples, not only real, but also, at times, familiar. I could identify with him even while I disapproved. And he is enviable. I envy him his insight and descriptive mastery, your descriptive mastery. To Piet, each face, conversation, sunset, and building has its own defining characteristics and no two vaginas are quite the same.

It is Piet’s endless search for unconditional love that finally destroys his marriage and breaks up his circle of enablers. The novel ends with the church in flames, couples divorcing and recoupling, the Asian scientist dying, and the Jewish couple leaving town. This dénouement seemed almost cheerful to me because the characters know a bit more about love and marriage than they did at the beginning. And a few even know more about themselves. Without self-understanding, the sexual revolution with its promise of foolproof birth control, multiple orgasms, and “free” love was wasted on us all. It took me a while to grasp that. I understood what Portnoy had to complain about, but frankly, it was, at first, hard for me to understand what made the mostly WASP couples of historical and picturesque Tarbox so miserable. I thought they were living the American Dream in lovely homes where they ate gourmet meals and played touch football like the Kennedys.

But you saw that America was changing not only in the bedroom, but also in boardrooms, offices and towns. You saw that our countryside was disappearing. In your books you chronicle the ripple effect of our natural landscape mutating from field to suburb to sprawl on those like Rabbit Angstrom and Piet Hanema. Poor Rabbit’s high school heroics on the basket ball court had not prepared him for the upheavals of the second half of the Twentieth Century any more than his memories of those glory days fortify him against his own racism, stubbornness, and overactive libido. Piet Hanema, a builder who takes pride in the houses he custom crafts, sees himself replaced by developers who mass-produce McMansions. Piet mourns what is lost even as he adapts.

Your admirable ability to capture people writhing in the throes of changes they cannot control inspired me as I wrote about my own teaching experiences in the Sixties and Bel Barrett’s in the Nineties and then again as I formulated a historical novel set in Seattle’s Jewish community during the Klondike Gold Rush and in 1965. Thank you for your incomparable books.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, unpublished