Judith Rossner Biography
Nationality: American. Born: Judith Perelman in New York City, 1935. Education: City College of New York, 1952-55. Address: c/o Simon and Schuster, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, New York 10020, U.S.A.
To the Precipice. New York, Morrow, 1966; London, Barker, 1977.
Nine Months in the Life of an Old Maid. New York, Dial Press, 1969;London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977.
Any Minute I Can Split. New York, McGraw Hill, 1972; London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977.
Looking for Mr. Goodbar. New York, Simon and Schuster, andLondon, Cape, 1975.
Attachments. New York, Simon and Schuster, and London, Cape, 1977.
Emmeline. New York, Simon and Schuster, and London, Cape, 1980.
August. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, and London, Cape, 1983.
His Little Women. New York, Simon and Schuster, and London, Sinclair Stevenson, 1990.
Olivia; or, The Weight of the Past. New York, Crown, 1994.
Perfidia. New York, Nan A. Talese, 1997.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Please Think of Me as a Friend," in Ararat (New York), Winter1967.
"Voyage of the Earth Maiden," in Cosmopolitan (New York), May1968.
"The Unfaithful Father," in Mademoiselle (New York), August1986.
What Kind of Feet Does a Bear Have? (for children). Indianapolis, Bobbs Merrill, 1963.
Mugar Memorial Library, Boston University.
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Judith Rossner's novels are concerned with women and relationships. In almost all of them, starting with To the Precipice in 1966 and continuing through August in 1983, the story opens with the protagonist's admission that the choices she has made, or not made, in life have been painfully wrong. In most cases, Rossner employs a first-person narrative to chronicle her protagonist's journey to self-discovery. The self-discovery never comes easily and it usually requires hard choices. Rossner's women are often outrageously self-indulgent and needy. They take their pride in thinking of themselves as hysterical types; they bemoan their maimed childhoods; they dwell upon their dreams and daydreams; and most have woken up one day to discover that their marriage of many years is hopelessly inadequate and must be abandoned if they are ever to have a chance to live as complete women with a self of their own. In the hands of a less able and inventive writer, this theme could quickly become banal. It is Rossner's interest in character and her flair for the grotesque and extravagant that carry her narratives. Many of her novels offer a clinical dissection of America's failed marriages and of a culture that has not permitted women to have a life apart from their children and husband. Almost all her books deal with women and their children, women and their sexual hunger, and women and their men. It is difficult to read her novels without keenly appreciating the depth of the psychological disorders which plague our era. Her novels travel from the quiescence and affluence of the 1950s, through the turbulence of the sexual and political upheavals in the mid-1960s, to the more mature feminism of the 1970s and early 1980s when women began to reassess their cry for independence and judge anew another set of sacrifices they have made in the pursuit of balancing the rival claims of mate, children, and work. Even in Emmeline, a novel which ostensibly takes the cotton mills in Lowell, Massachusetts in the early nineteenth century as its subject, Rossner makes the reader feel a twentieth-century feminist's outrage at the status of women and the plight of her heroine, a fourteen-year-old girl seduced by a mill foreman and later luckless enough to marry unwittingly her own son, the child she had given up for adoption some nineteen years earlier.
Rossner is intimately knowledgeable about women's dependency and her novels examine it with an often witty and ironic lens. She is thoroughly conversant with the world of what she calls her "offthe-wall" women and details in a most convincing way the world of the commune or the New York singles bar or the nineteenth-century mill town. She is immensely indebted to Freud, to the point that one entire novel, August, devotes itself to the month when psychiatrists vacation and patients struggle with the pains of withdrawal and transference while the analysts try to resist the tugs of counter-transference. She is heavily influenced by the writing of Doris Lessing, most particularly, The Golden Notebook and The Children of Violence series, as well as by Erica Jong's ribald Fear of Flying. Her writing is often sexually explicit, reveling in its own creation of women's fantasies, quick to celebrate multiple orgasms, and candid in its study of impotence and sexual indifference between married couples. She is savvy about the novel and its readership, exploiting her feminist subject and catering to the tastes of the New York/California sophisticate with an insatiable appetite for novels about neurotic women, free sex, and identity. She has also capitalized on the vogue for non-fiction, drawing on Truman Capote's In Cold Blood in her own clinical dissection of a rapist-murderer in Looking for Mr. Goodbar and upon the oral telling of Nettie Mitchell, a ninety-four-year-old woman who knew Emmeline when she herself was a child and Emmeline was an old woman. Whether she is exploring the victimization of Emmeline or Terry Dunne, the attractive, educated young schoolteacher of Looking for Mr. Goodbar whose sex with a stranger costs her her life, or whether she is analyzing the self-destructiveness of Ruth Kossoff in To the Precipice, or Nadine in Attachments, or Margaret in Any Minute I Can Split, or Dawn Henley in August, Rossner manages to make her reader recognize a part of themselves in her confused protagonists. Even when she is depicting with Rabelaisian humor some of the most grotesque scenes—the four-way orgy of Nadine and Dianne and the two joined Siamese twins Amos and Eddie in Attachments, or the scene where a 250-pound pregnant naked Margaret prances about her house, hardly raising an eyebrow among her husband's friends in Any Minute I Can Split—she is able to make her scene credible, illuminating, and capable of arousing our compassion. Understanding women in psychological extremis, Rossner can write ably about them.
In Rossner's early novels the women choose men for the wrong reasons and have their children also for wrong reasons. A goodly proportion of the novels chart the womens' bewildered emotional state in which they are afraid to leave the man they married but never loved, afraid to leave their children, and afraid to accept responsibility for the lives they have chosen and for the actions they belatedly recognized they must take. To the Precipice ends with the protagonist pregnant with her lover's child contemplating the difficult decisions she is going to have to confront when she finally acknowledges to her husband that this new child is not his. Knowing she may risk losing custody of her other children, knowing that she has already lost any chance of marrying her childhood lover, knowing that in all probability she might be simply a single mother, she has come to know that no matter what the pain and suffering she fears, she must not slip back into the depression-unto-death that she has previously succumbed to, but rather must face the difficulties ahead. Margaret, in Any Minute I Can Split, also learns self-respect. This woman, who flees her husband when she is nine months pregnant at the opening of the book and bears his children in a commune where he does not bother to visit her for many months, and who flirts with the notion of loving either the young hippie who has befriended her on the road, or the married guru of the commune, finally comes to terms with herself, her father, and her husband. Again, the novel leaves us uncertain whether Margaret will, in fact, remain with her husband. He, like the male protagonist in most of Rossner's novels, knows himself most imperfectly, but Margaret has come to recognize some of her own delusions and is herself determined to grow up even if her husband cannot. In Attachments, Nadine's needs and capacity for anomie are seemingly without limits. Marrying one of the freakish Siamese twins, and coercing her friend to marry the other so that the two women can remain together, Nadine lives in the circus atmosphere of her own making for more than thirteen years—through the birth of several children, the operation which separates the twins, the trials of her adolescent daughter, to her final decision to leave Amos and accept the guilt of knowing she had neither loved him when he was a freak, nor when he becomes normal. She has to go because she has now learned limits and it has become intolerable to live with the image of her own twisted, hopelessly vulnerable adolescent self. But in this novel, unlike the other two, the reader feels a terrible pity for the male protagonist and much more ambivalent about Nadine's decision.
Emmeline is a poignant book. It is written simply, capturing life in the industrial city of Lowell, and making us see how Emmeline's deprivations and innocence lead to her ruin. There is a sentimentality in the tale, but it is also simple and affecting. When the incest theme completes itself, there is a darkness reminiscent of Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome.
In August Rossner offers a full portrait of a divorced psychiatrist's life with her children and her lovers, not to mention her patients. In the other novels we see much of the moral confusion of broken households and much of the weight of despair alternating with boredom of the household which remain intact. August, although it traces the torturous childhood of Lulu Shinefeld's patient, Dawn, is a more compassionate and healing novel than any of the others. Dawn's life has more than its share of aberrations—after the tragic death of her parents, she has been raised by two lesbians, her surrogate parents, whose "divorce" when the novel opens drives Dawn into the arms of the analyst and many lovers. Nonetheless, despite the lurid details of Dawn's past which are recounted upon the analyst's couch as Dawn tries to recover her past, the novel itself is full of comic and affecting moments and the subplot about Dr. Shinefeld's private life is handled with humor and warmth. Ultimately, in this novel, both women mend, and, in the case of Dr. Shinefeld, we witness how life feels after she has mended and what life without a husband and with a career and children is actually like. The more affirmative character of this novel marks a greater maturity in its author.
His Little Women offers a feminist revisionist's response to Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. It counters the Victorian ideals of family, mother and sisterhood with its scathing examination of the broken family of the late twentieth century and its progeny. This new book is replete with divorces, rivalries between half-sisters and wives, and lurid accounts of the breakdown of the family. It offers a late twentieth-century critique of Alcott's novel. In His Little Women, the modern counterpart for Marmie is three different women, all connected by the fact that they have been married to the same man, Sam Pearlstein, the Papa March of this postmodern world. One of the Marmie figures is a neurasthenic, narcissistic movie star who coyly plays mistress to her husband, a Hollywood producer with four daughters from three wives. The bookish Jo March from Alcott's Little Women is transformed in His Little Women into Louisa, an ambitious woman, scarred by her father's neglect. Leaving her own family in order to be joined again with her natural father and ushered into his Hollywood world, Louisa becomes a best-selling novelist, penning a so-called "libelous" novel at the expense of her father and his extended family. It is probably no accident that this figure bears the first name of Alcott, thus commenting upon Alcott's relationship to her subject at the same time as it comments upon one of the characters in Alcott's book. It is difficult to tell who are Meg and Amy in Rossner's rereading of Alcott's novel and certainly Sam Pearlstein, the charismatic, Don Juan father is an unexpected counterpart to Mr. March. There is much in the novel that is more the stuff of pulp fiction and Princess Daisy than the work of a serious writer working in the literary traditions that gave rise to the much loved Little Women. Too much of Rossner's novel is preoccupied with the role of the writer, the license a writer can take with fact, and the personal costs of writing when the author is a woman, and a mother at that. Nonetheless, the book is funny in places. Its portrait of the Hollywood era of the big stars, producers, and paternalistic studio has a certain authentic ring to it. And like August, it is written heavily under the spell of Freud while simultaneously attacking him. Perfidia draws on contemporary themes—an abused daughter who ultimately kills her mother—and portrays them against the backdrop of 1970s decadence that had, by the end of the 1990s, become a staple of film if not fiction; but Rossner's unsympathetic portrayal of her characters gives readers few opportunities to bond with the story.
Rossner is an accomplished writer. She can spin a good tale; she can write a chilling, taut novel of suspense and murder or a raucous, bawdy tale of attachments. She writes mostly about women and her writing has further broken the silence that has shrouded so much of women's lives. Her accounts of pregnancy, sex with a stranger, the introduction of a man into a single-parent household, and women's needs explore areas of experience that have traditionally been ignored in the novel.
—Carol Simpson Stern