Feb 25 2008
Today’s guest review comes from author K.Z. Snow. Ms. Snow’s myspace profile indicates that she is a 100 year old woman from Wisconsin and from this guest review, appears to love Susan Fromberg Schaeffer’s The Madness of a Seduced Woman (Plume).
(All direct quotes from the text are taken from the 1991 Plume trade edition.)
The human heart can be a willful and rebellious creature. When prodded by an overactive mind that bears the taint of delusion, it can become a monster.
Susan Fromberg Schaeffer’s acclaimed 1983 novel, The Madness of a Seduced Woman, hooked me with its title alone. After reading it for the first time, I knew I’d been reeled into a fog that wouldn’t dissipate for days.
This novel stands tall among the finest works of contemporary women’s fiction. Intensely personal and yet epic in its scope, it doesn’t really qualify as a romance. There is no HEA-or, if the ending can be seen that way, it’s far from traditional. You won’t find the heroine’s double in any Harlequin release. She’s more closely related to Hester Prynne, Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, Catherine Earnshaw, Tess Durbeyfield, and Carrie Meeber. The prose has a sharp luminosity, like sunlight on ice crystals. Images of ordinary things are strangely startling. (Fans of historical fiction will admire the author’s attention to detail, which is sometimes too vividly rendered.) Dialogue, terse and realistic, roils with psycho-emotional undercurrents. Symbolism abounds, but generally not in an obtrusive way.
Nope, The Madness of a Seduced Woman is not a happy-happy, joy-joy morsel of a story, but rather a big, brilliant chunk of storytelling art.
The book opens in late-nineteenth-century Vermont. Sixteen-year-old Agnes Dempster-heir to her grandmother’s legendary beauty, her grandfather’s wealth, and a restless, idealistic spirit-wants to escape her provincial life in North Chittendon and “loosen the rope of shadows which tied me to my own past.” This desire is understandable; her short past is indeed quirky and bleak. But rather than find the intricately perfect life she yearns for, Agnes will instead be “[thrown] down on a dark and empty plain” by her own obsessive longings…which start feeding on themselves in an increasingly alarming way.
On her trip to Montpelier, where she will begin her independent new life, Agnes sees “the dark figure of a man” rescue a girl from a burning building. The image immediately ignites her imagination. This act of heroism comes to embody everything she yearns for. Although Agnes knows nothing about the rescuer except that he’s young, tall, and slender, she’s jealous of the girl he carried in his arms and wishes she could have been thus saved. It’s a prophetic event.
Upon reaching Montpelier, Agnes takes up residence in a boardinghouse and finds work as a seamstress. She soon starts “going about” with an attractive fellow lodger. Charlie Mondell is a pleasant, decent man who works as a stonecutter at the Barre quarries. Theirs is an uneventful and passionless liaison, one that abruptly disintegrates when Agnes discovers the identity of her mysterious hero. The “dark figure” turns out to be Charlie’s best friend, dapper Frank Holt, also a boarder at the same house, also a stonecutter. When Agnes sees the artistry of his carvings, she becomes even more firmly convinced he’s the “remarkable” and “exceptional” man she’d been waiting for.
He isn’t. In fact, he’s a completely inadequate vessel for Agnes’s dreams-a fact she steadfastly refuses to recognize. In spite of his talent, Frank Holt is a shallow, pedestrian, lazily opportunistic fellow, and something of a faithless cad, who’s initially blinded by the attention of this astonishingly beautiful and sexually eager young woman. He takes her virginity. He gets her pregnant (and, in one of the most gut-twisting scenes in all of contemporary literature, Agnes performs an abortion on herself, thinking she will please her lover by getting rid of the baby).
It isn’t long before Frank begins to stagger under the weight of Agnes’s ever more bloated expectations and needs. She wants him to be far more than he’s willing or able to be. Her hunger for his attention is incessant. Frank calls Agnes “insatiable”-yet he keeps coming back to her, further fueling her unrealistic visions of the future. They eventually become engaged. Unbeknown to Agnes, however, the duplicitous Frank has already begun courting another, far less demanding woman and plans on marrying her, not the moonstruck girl who loves him far too much for her own good.
And so begins the precipitous portion of Agnes Dempster’s descent. Her psyche slides and bumps down one declivity after another, like a toboggan speeding toward a mammoth, unavoidable tree. Even after Agnes smashes into that tree, her story isn’t over. (I’m sorry, but saying much more than that would be tantamount to dishing up a giant spoiler, even though a third of the story still remains to be told.)
The novel, divided into eight separately named parts, has a peculiar narrative structure that does work. It begins in the first person as Agnes, now seventy years old, introduces us to her background and her sixteen-year-old self. This older, wiser, reflective voice quickly fades as Agnes’s central story gets underway and is told from her youthful perspective. Then comes the novel’s “pivotal event.” Afterward, new characters are introduced, and narration proceeds in the third person. Toward the end, as the passage of time loops us back to the elderly Agnes we met at the start, the heroine’s voice again returns. There’s a very brief return to third person in the book’s final pages. This might seem confusing. But it isn’t, particularly, since each p.o.v. change takes place in a new section, which means after a significant break in the narrative.
The final third-or-so of the story, which takes place after the climax, does begin to seem…well… anticlimactic the longer it goes on. I’ll admit I grew impatient with it during my first reading. But when I read the novel again, and again, I began to realize why Ms. Fromberg Schaeffer constructed her tale the way she did. This is an examination of a life in its entirety and how a single cataclysmic event both shapes and is shaped by the whole. As a result of that realization, Agnes Dempster’s story began to take on a resonance my initial impatience didn’t allow it to have. “Never again,” she tells us at the end, “would I feel like a half-moon torn from itself, bleeding silently and steadily into the cold sky…” I finally knew what she meant.
The Madness of a Seduced Woman is well worth your investment of time…and angst. A+.
This book can be purchased in mass market. No ebook format.
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