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Books: Flibbertigibbet

4 minute read
Paul Gray


by Susan Cheever

Simon & Schuster; 188 pages; $8.95

Books by the children of famous authors are guaranteed an interested or curious audience. On the debit side, the comparisons that follow are likely to be odious. Susan Cheever, 36, accepts this mixed blessing with considerable panache. She never pretends to write like her old man, John, the sage of Ossining, but she alludes regularly and playfully to his imposing presence. When her heroine, Salley Gardens (nee Potter), gets married, one of the wedding guests is J.C. Salley’s father, a Columbia University professor, commits an unacknowledged theft from a Cheever short story when commenting on his older brother: “What can you do with a man like that?” Even an apparently innocent comment by Salley carries, given the name of the author, some ironic freight: “Graceful prose was never my father’s strong suit.”

Such in-joking helps distinguish Looking for Work from the 8 trillion or so recent novels about young women trying to find themselves. The chief point of the exercise seems to be fun. No matter how much she protests, Salley is a confirmed flibbertigibbet, her name itself an amusingly pointless steal from a poem by Yeats (“Down by the salley gardens my love and I did meet”). Life has given her every advantage, including just the right number of trendy neuroses. Though she claims to spend a large portion of her story job hunting, what she really looks for, and always just misses, is trouble.

She marries Jason, a magazine writer and editor, in the 1960s and spends the next five years following him to new job locations (London, San Francisco). Along the way, she falls out of love with marriage and her husband. Divorce leaves her both miserable and sitting pretty. She is courted by a famous sculptor, a gifted writer and an admiring lawyer who takes her for idyllic sails on Long Island Sound. She has an apartment with a terrace on Manhattan’s East Side and a woman who comes in to tidy it up. She can afford to jet to the coast to see her sculptor whenever the mood hits her. Her routine is the stuff of beauty-salon fantasies: “Twice a day I treat my face with Erno Laszlo’s special soaps and lotions. Once a month my legs are waxed by Mrs. Rugged at Elizabeth Arden. My hair is cut by Harry at Kenneth’s and twice a year Marianne puts a series of blond streaks in it—wrap-ping the silky little clumps in tinfoil and painting them with white paste.”

What is wrong with this picture? Not quite enough to work up a lather over Salley’s alleged miseries. Because Salley tells her own story, it is impossible to say how seriously Cheever wants her to be taken. The only real point of suspense in the book is a foregone conclusion: when the right job comes along, Salley gets it.

Though the heroine may not be worth reading about, it is impossible not to like her. Salley has a brisk style and some off hand witty observations: “After dinner, the editors, who were all men, went down to the den, and the editors’ wives, who were all women, stayed in the shag-car peted living room perched uncomfortably on the modern chairs and sofas.” What she learns belongs on a greeting card: “The more you risk, the more you reap. The more you give, the more you get.” But what has gone before — notably Cheever’s dry humor and high spirits — makes that message easy to take and easy to excuse.

−Paul Gray

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