This very unusual novel is a departure from the norm, the story of a woman wrapped in personal isolation, though she tries hard to appear normal. Rhoda is an intensely pragmatic woman who takes her marriage to Leonard, a pharmacist, and the births of her two daughters in 1940s New Jersey in stride. From a non-religious Jewish family, Rhoda possesses the hopeful traits of a woman of her economic class but has invested little effort in self-examination, real choices as foreign to her as the enemies fought by the soldiers in World War II.
Married in the pre-war forties, Rhoda is of a certain generation, society strictly proscribing her role as caretaker and helpmeet for her husband. Although reality is often disappointing, certain things are expected. Not one to waste time on introspection, Rhoda tackles motherhood with determination if not joy, more comfortable parenting from a distance. Handling daily skirmishes with some disinterest, as though waiting for life to begin, Rhoda realizes after the fact that it has passed her by.
Rhoda remains disconnected from reality for all her easy sarcasm, floating slightly above the surface of each day, whether engaged in her marriage with Leonard or carrying out her maternal obligations. Rhoda’s marriage has allowed her certain comforts, if not luxury, but a change of fortune leaves her unable to form any coherent plan for the future. In this context, the private landscape of Rhoda’s detachment is quite stunning, her skewed perception and isolation from others rendering this character surprisingly sympathetic.
Whatever her disappointments, Rhoda hides them well, presenting a flawless façade to the world. Instinctively more comfortable with wisecracks than affection, from the first day of her marriage, she is emotionally guarded with her husband, believing romance belongs in the privacy of the bedroom. The girls, Suzanne and Claire, naturally gravitate to their father, who listens to their childish concerns, Rhoda likely to exact obedience in lieu of comfort. Unexpected loss leaves Rhoda particularly unmoored. Surprised by circumstances outside of her control, she copes by keeping herself too busy to ponder her terrifyingly altered situation.
Rhoda’s ordinariness provides the strength of the novel, the familiar dramas of daily life played out without much fanfare although her heart beats wildly at every turn. Knowing only the confines of a limited world, Rhoda is often stunned by the banality of daily existence, the measured rewards of parenthood and the few comforts of her life. She has never asked for much, shocked to see how little her sacrifices matter in the end.
In her introduction, Mona Simpson speaks of the novel’s “tightly managed point of view,” an inspired description of a woman who embraces her failures and instinctive dislocation, her quiet helplessness in the face of the unexpected. This very constriction is riveting, Rhoda furious in her restraint, her acquiescence to convention, believing she is “a normal woman with an attractive fate who was trapped inside a mistake.”