THE CAGE by Susan Cheever


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Before it slides into an unfortunate attempt at fanciful/symbolic melodrama (a delicate specialty, of course, of the late John Cheerer), this slight third novel offers the younger Cheerer's best writing yet: plain, graceful, thoughtful--without the empty mannerisms of Looking for Work and A Handsome Man. In alternating chapters, Cheerer sketches in a middle-aged married couple--a civilized/miserable pair not unlike those found in John Cheever's suburbia. William ""Billy"" Bristol, senior writer at a Newsweek-like newsmagazine, is a trouble-avoider: he looks longingly at young women but stays within the cage of marriage; he sweats over his writing (a cover story on alcoholism) but wryly accepts the idiotic editing decisions from above. Meanwhile, back home, wife Julia writhes with unexpressed jealousies while doing her classy-housewife rounds; she mourns the loss of her wealthy, pampered past; she edgily waits for the next communication (usually a disappointment) from daughter Cece in California. And Cheerer draws these two lives with quietly convincing detail--from Julia's panic while getting lost driving (in the Bronx!) to a fine, gently metaphorical scene in which and Billy must dismantle an old, beloved Couch that's been in her family for Julia years. Then, however, as the Bristols begin the summer vacation in their deteriorating New England retreat (built ages ago by Julia's long-lamented father), the marital discord and mid-life bitterness become over-explicit, with an uneasy transition into the faintly surreal: Julia locks Billy in a literal cage, part of her father's once-grandiose home menagerie; the under-the-surface hostilities are now brought to the surface, verbalized; and, after Billy escapes from the cage (""The weights that had stooped him to passivity. . . all rolled off him""), there's a violent, contrived fadeout. As a novel, then, this is far from successful--a two-tone exercise that finally seems like a muchinflated short story. But Cheerer's quiet insight and effectively spare prose (in the first half) are a welcome surprise; and the autobiographical shadow here--the feeling that the Bristols are drawn in part from the Cheerers--will add to the interest.

Pub Date: Sept. 10th, 1982
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin