In this absurdly titled little work, a poet and biographer of women (The Red Shoes: Margaret Atwood, Starting Out, not reviewed; English/Univ. of Toronto) retells the old story of a woman’s obsessive passion for a self-centered man, then meditates on its themes.
It’s a familiar story: a woman with nothing to lose meets the one; they have an intense and delicious affair; she ends up heartbroken. In this modern version, shorn of Medea’s vengeance and Dido’s melodrama, Sullivan’s brief narrative provides points of entry for a sequence of episodic essays, most juxtaposing romantic fictions with factual love affairs: Dante and Beatrice, Sartre and Beauvoir, Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys. The prose, simple, intimate, and direct, and the quietly confident imagery lend force and clarity to a few salient observations about the trap of romantic obsession. But the overall effect is thin and inconsequential. Sullivan negotiates the turns between bits of memoir, biography, belles-lettres, and feminist pop psychology well enough, but each of these genres, except possibly the last, demands a depth or rigor that just isn’t there. The choice of texts is too arbitrary (not a syllable of Shakespeare), the thinking too shallow, the analysis too sloppy (the section on Charlotte Brontë gets wrong both an important plot element and the sequence in which two works were written) to convey either intellectual or scholarly authority. Despite some autobiographical passages, the writing is not intensely personal enough to carry the punch of an idiosyncratic self. So pop psychology wins after all: Sullivan ends with a coda to the original story that amounts to nothing more than a self-esteem lesson in the mode of Ms., circa 1985. And while it may seem unfair to criticize a study so small for neglecting women’s passion for other women, the consistency of that neglect in writing that purports to be about “women” in general grows tiresome.
Highbrow self-help for heterosexual women over 30.