A HANDSOME MAN by Susan Cheever


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Without the surface appeal of the Manhattan-literary milieu in Looking for Work (1980), this small second novel even more clearly exposes the flatness of Cheever's prose and the limpness of her (seemingly autobiographical) storytelling. Her alter ego this time is Hannah Bart--a 30-ish, slightly overweight, divorced PR person (for ""Barter Books"") who's having a hard-to-pin-down affair with handsome, glamorous, 50-ish, divorced Sam Noble, ""president of his own classy publishing house."" And now Sam has invited Hannah along on a trip to Ireland: an apparent move toward commitment which Hannah tries to compound--by suggesting that Sam ask his estranged highschool-dropout son Travis (bumming around Europe) to join them (along with Hannah's bright kid-brother). The results are numbingly predictable: tension between sensitive Hannah and warm-but-closed-off Sam over the seriousness of their liaison; rivalry between Hannah and Travis for Sam's attention; and--after an unsettling drive into Northern Ireland and Sam's general withdrawal--the inevitable sexual explosion between Hannah and quasi-stepson Travis (""her resistance thawed in the hot force of his desire""). Suave and cool Sam, however, is finally opened up by this experience (""Oh, God. . . I feel as if I've been so selfish""); so there's hope, presumably, for his future with Hannah--who's an essentially complacent and humorless (though effortfully flip) heroine. Cheever works hard at all the mood shifts of an up-to-date affair--complete with interpolations from Hannah's psychiatrist, relationship-jargon (""you just weren't there for me, you know?""), and leaden socio-psychological observations from Hannah (""By this time two women would have gotten over their first discomfort and tackled the emotional subtext""). But the characters--the men especially--remain unlifelike throughout. And unlike, say, the interplay of Richard P. Brickner's Tickets (p. 88), Cheever's itchy maneuverings around romance never register as anything but trivial and petulant. Some okay Ireland hotel/fishing/food ambience--and the Cheever name will continue to be a draw--but those seeking either wit or emotional involvement here will be equally disappointed.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1981
Publisher: Simon & Schuster