OTHER WOMEN by Lisa Alther


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Doing therapy""--in an earnest, slow novel that (especially in comparison with Judith Rossner's challenging, sophisticated August) chugs along on a bland, repetitious Psych-101 level. The reluctant New Hampshire client is nurse Caroline Kelley, 35, mother of two, an almost-committed lesbian after bad heterosexual experiences; but now that her live-in affair with colleague Diana has soured (""a constant struggle to overnurture"" each other), Caroline's depressed and even suicidal. So she grudgingly, warily begins once-a-week sessions with 55-ish psychologist Hannah Burke--who quickly starts pointing out the patterns in Caroline's history, going right back to a beloved ""Pink Blanky"": do-gooder Boston parents, demanding and rejecting; the struggle for acceptance via pleasing/helping behavior (""the oldest-daughter syndrome""); the subsequent (unconscious) desire to be rejected; and other self-help-book standbys--leading up, after 350 pages, to ""The strength you've insisted on assigning to others is actually within yourself."" Meanwhile, during the months of therapy, Caroline tries and rejects heterosexuality again; she's secure enough to enjoy casual, loveless sex (""She'd had no idea irresponsibility could feel so good""); she realizes her parents' faults, starts asserting herself, loses her ""taste for suffering,"" and winds up a ""powerful lady."" And, through the ups and downs of transference/counter-transference, kind-but-tough therapist Hannah finds herself identifying with Caroline's struggles--while brooding on her own guilts (the bygone death of two small children) and strains (menopause, separation-traumas with two grown children). Alther, author of the comic Kinflicks and sporadically amusing Original Sins, occasionally softens the case-history outlines here--with some sharp dialogue, a few ironic vignettes (those selfless/selfish Boston parents), and sentimental touches in the edgy Caroline/Hannah friendship. But Hannah, though often charming, lacks the full-bodied believability of Rossner's woman-analyst; Caroline is an unengaging composite of familiar, uncompelling syndromes. And, unlike August (which had different, flashier flaws), this therapy-chronicle never finds the intensity, texture, or authenticity needed to transcend the textbook/inspirational clichÉs of the pop-psychology genre.

Pub Date: Oct. 31st, 1984
Publisher: Knopf