Twenty-five years after its release, Norton is reissuing Silber’s debut novel of a Jewish housewife, winner of the Hemingway Foundation/Pen Award.
Silber’s lean, aloof style, which made last year’s Ideas of Heaven a National Book Award finalist, is evident here in her first novel about Rhoda Taber, an ordinary woman living an unremarkable life in a 1940s affluent New Jersey community. She’s married to Leonard and they’re expecting her first child, but “happily” cannot be applied to either of these states—Rhoda is cultured, bright and a great kidder, but her life is somehow hollow and ambiguously disappointing. She gives birth to Suzanne, an unlovely baby, goes to the beach with Leonard, socializes with people she ever so slightly disdains and watches her spectacular mother die. The stuff of life, both mundane and miraculous, is given the same steady treatment, creating a narrative at once familiar and oddly discomfiting. Leonard dies suddenly, leaving Rhoda a young widow with two small girls (including the prettier, overly emotional Claire), but surprisingly, the shape of Rhoda’s life changes little. The men her friends fix her up with are all lacking a certain something. Leonard’s death has left her wealthier, though she spends little more than she did before. The girls remain vaguely inadequate and out of her emotional reach. The girls grow, Suzanne into a lumbering, angry teenager and Claire into a girl hungry for attention, as Rhoda becomes ill. Her long decline is solitary, painful and a burden to her girls. Silber’s exterior approach to storytelling (there is little self-reflection for her characters, and generally their thoughts are shielded from the reader) is an odd fit for a character study fashioned into a novel. Nonetheless, she creates a compelling portrait (made a bit haunting for its gaps) of an unsatisfied woman.
Hardly new to the scene, this reprint may draw deserved attention to Silber’s later work.