Convictions are greater enemies of truth than lies.
I have had the pleasure of reading two works by Philip Roth, both very different in tone and demonstrating a wide range of his abilities as a writer. Portnoy's Complaint turned out to be one of the funniest, most neurotic novels I've read and was the hook that convinced me that more Roth would make worthwhile reading. My second foray, When She Was Good, the subject of this post, has similarities in that it is a character study but there it ends. It is a much darker, more somber novel and it is about a character that I felt little sympathy for by the end of the reading. However, the set up of the novel where the reader is told the central character is dead was the element that made me want to continue as I had to know why and how.
Structurally, Roth tells the story of Lucy Nelson from a variety of character perspectives. The initial segment, where her premature passing is revealed, provides some background on Lucy's family leading up to the point where she begins to assert herself in the family and take rigid control of her life. You learn about her abusive drunkard of a father, her mother, who from Lucy's perspective, is a weak person who in part forms the impetus for Lucy to be as hard as she is. A grandfather who is more concerned about debate and inclusive resolutions rather than direct, decisive action rounds out this lengthy opening.
The remaining perspectives, including her own, show the inflexible woman she has become and form the central core of the work. She is inflexible in her decisions and the focal point of any choice she makes is herself. She doesn't take other people into account and when she has decided on a course of action she is resolute that it be followed through to the end. She is cruel, spiteful and single minded, and her choices eventually lead to her destruction.
I feel that a keystone to this novel is when Lucy asks herself, "when will I stop being right and start being happy?" She fails to realize that she has set up the conditions for this transition to never occur. For her to stop needing to be right would entail a personality shift that few people go through in their lives as it is her defining characteristic.
The novel is not without its weaker points. The most prominent, I feel, is the idea behind the opening segment. It can seem that the abusive, drunk father is the catalyst for Lucy's development into who she is, and can seem like a commentary on the harm this element can have on a family. Unfortunately, I have encountered the Lucy type several times, as I'm sure most people have, and those whose backgrounds I know have widely differing histories. I assume that it was merely one device, and one of many Roth could have chosen, that allowed him to describe a complete character arc and not have it seem she developed out of nowhere. Unfortunately, this leads to misunderstandings of the novel which I'll address below.
Whenever I finish reading a book I take some time to make sense of it. I'll search online for reviews and commentary for other perspectives to see elements I may have missed, or to put two and two together where I may have missed a link. What I found when I looked at reader reviews on Amazon was sometimes shocking. Among the insightful comments there is a review titled "Effects of an Alcoholic Father" that, as I already suggest, miss the point of the work. More disturbing are comments such as "Lucy is so easy to identify with," and "Lucy Nelson...is my kind of gal." Lucy, quite simply, should earn the respect of no one. Hers is a personality to be wary of. Roth shows in an intimate, familial setting the destruction to self and others that this mindset causes. People with attitudes such as this who have managed to insert themselves into greater spheres of influence - political, economic - have greatly increased the potential for catastrophe on a wider scale.