Monthly Archives: July 2012

Dear P.D. James,

Cover Her Face

I’ve recently attended my fiftieth Vassar reunion, an occasion designed to recall memories of 1962 when life waited like an exquisitely wrapped wedding


gift I just knew held something special. At a pre-reunion get-together our hostess got out the obligatory yearbook, and we passed it around, marveling at the fresh-faced girls we’d been. After I relinquished the book, I glanced at my old friends clustered around the coffee table. In that second, I saw us as we’d been five decades ago, our faces yet unmarked by experience, wisdom, or time. Not surprisingly we spent much of the weekend reliving what life was really like for young women in 1962, so it’s no wonder that when I returned home, I sought out my copy of your very first mystery, Cover Her Face, which came out that year.

Wedding Gift

Unwed Mother

You really nailed 1962. In this novel, you dramatize people’s ambivalence about the social changes sweeping England and America. The victim, housemaid Sally Judd, is thought to be an unwed mother and she is not the only woman indulging in premarital sex. Sally’s announcement of her engagement to the son of the landed Maxie family for whom she works heralds class co-mingling of the sort that became more common during the Sixties. Sally herself, described by a former employer as “Pretty, intelligent, ambitious, sly, and insecure” was also something of a drama queen with a penchant for embarrassing the powerful. In the end, it is this leaning that puts her in harm’s way. In fact, it puts her in the path of another woman equally bent on keeping power in the hands of the gentry where it had always been. And so, we end with a young woman dead and an older one going to prison.

The good news for women in Cover Her Face is the realization of loyal and sensible nurse Catherine Bower that she’d rather be single than continue her


dubious relationship with the callow Stephen Maxie. For a woman in an English novel to turn away a suitor was still a revolutionary act, more like Brontë’s Jane Eyre than Austen’s Lydia Bennett. But the not very pretty Catherine is a new woman. She has a profession and doesn’t need to tie herself to a loser to live comfortably. And you do reward her with a worthier liaison later on. Cover Her Face is full of well-drawn characters who reflect their time and place very convincingly.

So my post-reunion return to the early 1960s was more than facilitated by revisiting your debut novel. And so was my need to lose myself in a good mystery, a book that would take me far from health concerns, news of our sad world, and my obligations to e-mail and Facebook. In Cover Her Face, you offer a puzzle worthy of Dame Agatha. And to help us solve it, you introduce Scotland Yard’s Detective Chief-Inspector Adam Dalgleish. He is a “tall, dark, and handsome” man who looks before he speaks, views the body and the crime scene before interviewing the family, and is known for his “ruthless” and “unorthodox” approach to bringing criminals to justice. He proved to be a keeper, and I followed his career and personal life with interest in subsequent books. And I followed your career too as you continued to fill your books with issues and characters emblematic of the changing times.

Time to Be in Earnest

Your socially relevant and carefully crafted novels inspire me as I dream up mysteries of my own. And your life as you recall it in Time to Be in Earnest

Working Mom

inspires me as well. For, like me, you were a working mom who came to writing later in life with a healthy respect for genre fiction. And you are still writing today! Bravo, Baroness and thank you!


Jane Isenberg

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Filed under British mystery, feminist fiction, Historical mystery, mystery, Uncategorized

Dear Anna Quindlen,

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake

I just finished your memoir Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, and, of course, I loved it. I’ve always relished the way you draw on your own experiences,

Sandwich Generation

strewing your New York Times columns with first-person pronouns: “That’s what makes life so hard for women, that instead of thinking that this is the way things are, we always think it’s the way we are.” I still savor the sharp images you use. A passing jet is “a shining exclamation point in the blue sky” and women sandwiched between nurturing kids and nursing aging parents are “caregivers cubed.” Reading your personal and poignant prose once again took me back to my first encounter with your columns in the early Eighties.

NYT Logo

The New York Times seemed austere, dense, a paper for corporate types and lawyers to peruse over leisurely wife-made breakfasts. A working mom, I seldom had time to skim the front page of my local paper before leaving my kids’ egg-crusted

Man Reading Paper over Coffee

dishes on the table and tearing off to teach my community college classes. Then a female colleague recommended your column, so I read it. To my amazement, it was actually about stuff that interested me, “women’s stuff” like grocery shopping with kids, the amniocentesis dilemma, and working from home with a toddler drooling on your lap and an infant waking from a nap. I recalled a time when my comments on the student essays I read at home were punctuated by yogurt splotches when I returned them to their authors. Who knew this detail of my messy double life mattered? You did. You taught me that certain issues that mattered to me, what we now call “women’s issues,” were actually newsworthy, New York Times-worthy. Thanks to you, when menopause hit, I knew this daunting passage mattered, and I wrote a series of mysteries featuring Bel Barrett, a Kegeling, sweating amateur sleuth who tracks killers in between mood swings.

There’s more to my affinity for your memoir than my appreciation of your style and subject matter though. Your unashamed membership in the middle

Rest in Peace Middle Class

class is both refreshing and validating. In an era of victim-lit, your references to your comfortable, albeit not opulent childhood during which you were neither abused nor addicted is a relief. Your mother’s illness and death saddened you but did not destroy you and neither did being the oldest of five sibs. You went to college, married a lawyer, got several great jobs, had children, and found a way to stay home with them and still write. None of this sounds like gripping memoir-fodder, but it is when you put it out there and describe what you learned from your relatively untroubled life. In Lots of Candles, you refer to your good fortune unabashedly each time you mention your healthy kids, your happy marriage, your two homes, and, of course, your extremely rewarding work. As a result of that work, you,  a woman and a writer, both traditionally underpaid, are able to retain your place among the middle class, a cohort vanishing even as I type. Kudos and thank you for your game-changing columns, your inspiring memoir, and your engrossing novels.


Jane Isenberg.


Filed under American classic, Coming of age story, feminist fiction, Memoir