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GUEST REVIEW: The Madness of a Seduced Woman by Susan...

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+.

~ K. Z. Snow

This book can be purchased in mass market. No ebook format.


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Guest Reviewer


  1. Janine
    Feb 25, 2008 @ 10:01:13

    This book sounds fascinating. The multiplicity of voices and POV styles are especially intriguing. But I’m not sure I can take the angst.

  2. K. Z. Snow
    Feb 25, 2008 @ 11:13:12

    Actually, Janine, the angst isn’t heavily applied by the author; she has too deft a touch to do anything so obvious. Moreover, once the reader gets past the pre- and post-“collision” events, the emotional impact of the story gradually eases and things often take pleasant turns. The ending is actually uplifting in a way.

    Still, any sensitive reader is bound to come away from this experience–and it is an experience, not just a pleasant read–feeling a little squirmy. That’s a good thing, though. As a New York Times reviewer said, this book is “an absorbing, wonderfully inventive psychological tale of a woman imagined as we would never dare, or want, to be.” And Alice Walker (no less!) called it “a riveting and intricate and altogether astonishing novel.” Given its artistry, I think Madness is worth the squirm!

  3. Janine
    Feb 25, 2008 @ 15:18:25

    Thanks. Books generate very powerful emotions in me, especially when they are well-written. There are some disturbing books that I adore and others that you couldn’t pay me to reread. There isn’t always away to know which of these categories a book will fall into, but I’m glad to hear that the ending is uplifting in a way. I may just read this, if I can make some inroads into Mount TBR.

  4. Elise
    Feb 25, 2008 @ 19:55:09

    This book sounds amazing. It sounds like one of those books where you take a long, meaningful journey with the characters, and those are the best books of all. I must add this to my TBR pile; great review, as well. :)

  5. K. Z. Snow
    Feb 25, 2008 @ 23:02:14

    Thank you, Elise. I’m glad Dear Author gave me the opportunity to share this book with readers. And yes, reading it is a journey. It will engage you for days, at the very least.

  6. LinM
    Feb 26, 2008 @ 08:39:33

    Reviews like this – the ones with a drumbeat saying “read this book; read this book; read this book” – always lead me on. The library had one copy in the system; it is making its way to my local branch. If the angst is too much, I will try “The Autobiography of Foudini M. Cat” (by the same author).

  7. K. Z. Snow
    Feb 26, 2008 @ 12:50:32

    Reviews like this – the ones with a drumbeat saying “read this book; read this book; read this book” – always lead me on. The library had one copy in the system; it is making its way to my local branch.

    And my kickback check is making its way from the author *grin*. (Hey, hey, just kidding!)

  8. calvin
    Feb 05, 2011 @ 23:31:15

    If you are frustrated with going home alone or never getting a date, check out this website. It is just what you need to build the skills you need to get the girl you want.
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    Many of the books published today are written by men and are written to explain the way men think the woman thinks. These can work as they give an element of self confidence but most of the time that’s it, they don’t help you to seduce woman they are only helping to teach you to stop standing around and actually talk to us.

  9. ta
    Aug 18, 2011 @ 14:01:33

    There is no question that the reader is taken on a journey along with Agnes. I found this book probably a decade ago and read it each year. It is, without question, one of my all time favorites. Long after you’ve turned the last page, you will be thinking about this book.

    Susan Fromberg Schaeffer is an excellent writer. She also wrote “Buffalo Afternoon” which is the story of a returning Vietnam vet. Years ago, a friend of mine who taught a high school class about the Vietnam War and read quite a few novels about this time period, said that this book, “Buffalo Afternoon,” most closely represented what it was like for a Vietnam vet returning from war in his opinion. Quite a tribute, I think.

  10. jenn bruzzese
    Jan 14, 2012 @ 09:26:30

    I was totally absorbed by this book i really was hard to put down. What Agnes when thru was horrific yet blissfull yet unexplainable. I felt for her the whole way through this book and i wanted to cry when i finished it. I was kinda hoping she would met up with Frank again just to say goodbye for one last time and for her to be at some what peace with everything she when thru. I wish the book didnt ended, im lost now ive finished it.

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