Philip Roth – When She Was Good

From May, 2007…

The year was 1967. In America, Roe vs. Wade and Title IX were still five years away, and a proliferation of the saucy-cum-insouciant heroine was unimaginable. A few women were dumping their bras in the trash, or even burning them, and yes, Philip Roth was writing. The title When She Was Good is reminiscent of 60s and 70s aftershave commercials where a sports hero might receive a facial massage from the sleekly scratching hands of a woman being, to his mind, very, very good. The notion of women being better when they are badly behaved is nothing new. But this is Philip Roth, and Roth’s idea of bad-as-good means “watch out”. Thinking of Lucy Nelson as a protagonist is difficult as there is nothing favorable about her. She’s born angry, vindictive, moralistic, and incurable. Only she doesn’t know it. In fact, she never has an inkling of insight and says, over and over, “but I’m good.”

Roth leads us into a sort of mixed sympathy for Lucy. She’s the daughter of a ne’er-do-well alcoholic and his passive wife. Her childhood is marred by the ousting of her father from the home after a drunken bout. But it is Lucy who does the ousting, Lucy who dials the police and breathes the sigh of relief when he is taken away. From that point, she wages war with men, chief among them her hapless husband, Roy, a WWII vet who loves her in a disheveled manner that she just can’t forgive. Philip Roth brings the reader into that mixed atmosphere of sympathy and frustration with Lucy, sympathy for her unplanned pregnancy and a waffling Roy, frustration with her blind spots, and finally an all out rivet as Lucy’s need to control wreaks havoc upon her family and self.

When She Was Good meanders through half the story; then, in Roth’s inimitable way, he strips the veneer and exposes the wolf. Written in realistic style and without any of his trademark humor, Roth struggles to find Lucy’s voice and motivation in much of the novel. She is somewhat weakly written until she begins to unravel, but then what an affair that is! The last third of the book holds fast and will not let go. As Lucy tries harder to get the square peg into the hole, her defenses smack of all their futility and uselessness. Her husband flees from her rages, taking their child and precipitating her shrieking downfall as she continues to demand their very lives. Only when she discovers that her father has been writing her mother all along, for years, is Lucy mortally undone. These simple lines shared by her imperfect parents place the final crack in her brittle casing, and she’s finished.

As years go by–with accelerated speed,
We find with us, an ever growing need
To recall to mind, and a wish to live,
In that glorious past–to re-have and re-give.

We bring to mind–the mistakes we made,
The aches and hurts–that we’ve caused, I’m afraid
Are brought in distinctly–with increasing pain
Till we wish, with all heart–to re-do it again.

Only to do it better–so that the pain is gone,
And make them all the good things, all along.
At least the great wish that would be really mine,
That I could just once more–be your Valentine.

No one does it gooder.

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