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Susan (Anderson) Minot Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: Boston, Massachusetts, 1956. Education: Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, B.A.; Columbia University, New York, M.F.A. Career: Associate editor, Grand Street, New York, 1982-86; adjunct professor, Graduate Writing Program, New York University, 1987, and Columbia University, New York, 1989. Awards: Prix Femina Étranger, 1987.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Monkeys. New York, Dutton, 1986.

Folly. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1992.

Evening. New York, Knopf, 1998.

Short Stories

Lust and Other Stories. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1989.

Plays

Screenplays:

Stealing Beauty. Fox Searchlight, 1996; published asStealing Beauty: Screenplay, New York, Grove Press, 1996.

* * *

A loving detailer of her region—Boston and the North Shore—and a detailed critic of love, Susan Minot weaves stories whose sadness bespeak a piercing intelligence and courageous honesty. Her contribution to the genres of short story and novel is a feminized minimalist style. Although minimalism is more often associated with male writers such as the late Raymond Carver, Minot gives us a hybridized version. She incorporates minimalism's narrow brush strokes, while at the same time painting the emotions clearly.

Minot's protagonists, mostly women, are searching for love. The theme remains constant in different milieus: Monkeys is set in 1970s North Shore; Lust takes place in yuppie 1980s New York City; Folly is set on Beacon Hill from the 1920s to the 1950s. Although the language and mores of each time and place are different, the sentiments expressed by the characters are similar: in the space where love should be, there is emptiness, lack, "an overwhelming sadness, an elusive gaping worry."

Family love is the primary concern in her first two novels, whereas romantic love is the aim in the short story collection, Lust. Although romance is harder to achieve and more transitory, family love is also elusive, unexpected, sometimes even a great surprise. In Monkeys, Minot creates a whole family, including seven kids, with a degree of particularity that one would expect for a smaller cast. Her portraits of troubled adolescent males are as sensitive as those of their sisters. In the chapter, "Accident," teenaged Sherman is introduced by a typically minimalist reductio ad absurdum, which succeeds in conveying a sufficient amount of information: "Sherman has the cat in his lap, not thinking much, sixteen years old." As if being a sixteen-year-old male means, prima facie, that you don't think too much, but you do like to feel living creatures in your lap. This story climaxes in a scene that any of us would like to have written: Sherman, dead drunk and talking like a thug, confronts his alcoholic dad with the question: "Are you my faddah? Then why don't you act like a faddah?" Predictably, Dad scurries away, leaving Sherman in an uncharacteristically expressive state. One wail escapes him; it sets his siblings in motion. Chicky, the younger brother, knows that this is not like the grief when their mother died: that was like seeing the Devil for a flash; this was the Devil swooping down, hulking in the middle of the kitchen table, and settling down to stay. In this family, as in many real-life ones, the children have been forced to take responsibility for their alcoholic father. Minot creates a recognizable family dynamic, evoking pathos without melodrama.

In Lust, the characters are wistful; they can't quite understand what it is they stand to gain from their sexual relationships, even though they need them like bodies need water. Women pursue and are pursued by men in a fast-whirling social environment that includes cocaine-snorting and glamorous careers in film and journalism. Minot's sure rhythms capture the hard-boiled verities of this party life. In short paragraphs, she begins with short, simple sentences, building gradually to longer ones to create the inevitable conclusion: men don't love like women do. Her logic appears in simple two-or three-liners that capture a sense of futility. After sex, boys are like this: "Their blank look tells you that the girl they were fucking is not there anymore. You seem to have disappeared." Before sex, things are much better: "He pressed close. She felt as if she were setting off for a place she'd only vaguely heard about. Her heart was going madly, knowing nothing, feeling no pain." During the affair, you learn that you can't take it: "Slowly it dawned on me this was one of those loose and easy things. Maybe I'll learn something, I thought. I did. I learned things. I learned I didn't have the stomach for it. You need an iron stomach, and nerves of steel." Do not look for a happy, mutual, heterosexual relationship in Minot. You will not find it.

Folly 's title warns us that it is about another inadequate relationship, this time a marriage that begins in the 1920s. Because Lilian is more sheltered than the protagonists of Monkey and Lust, her loss of innocence is more gradual. Her life is measured by three encounters with Walter Vail that take place every dozen years. He is the kind of cad who first appears in Lust, but whose looks and actions are even more deceiving to a 1920s Boston girl who is not exactly a flapper. The story is a realistic account of changed feelings over time. After Walter leaves her the first time, Lilian eventually finds a man, Gilbert Finch, who is Walter's opposite in temperament: deeply sensitive, introverted, and conservative. She convinces herself that this is true love, not that heart-flapping sensation she had felt with Walter. She marries Gilbert and has children. But when Gilbert's sensitivity develops into clinical depression, Lilian decides that Walter is her type of man, after all. Walter haunts her Bostonian scene at decade-intervals, always aware that Lilian is still infatuated with him, and always neglectful of the consequence of his actions. In the last scene, Lilian is finally able to name his indifference for what it is: "Caring was beneath him. He could not have done a better job if someone had dared him not to care." Minot dramatizes his condition in an absurd, yet realistic gesture: he doesn't care enough to finish his sentence. He reaches for a drink instead.

Minot's titles, Monkeys, Lust, and Folly, tell us what she thinks about people seeking or running from love. Yet she is not a pessimist; rather, she accepts that life contains greater mystery than words can say. This quality is borne out in Evening, a novel in which the title serves as a metaphor for the end of one's days: dying of cancer at age sixty-five, Ann Grant remembers her life, in particular a torrid weekend four decades in the past.

Jill Franks

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