Writer Anne Roiphe spent years as a helpmate to male writers before striking out on her own. Her memoir is a wise exploration of how she found her voice.
Anne Roiphe always knew she wanted to be a writer. So she married one.
Does that make any sense?
Not in this day and age. For intelligent, young Anne Roiphe, however, coming of age in the 1950s and '60s forced her to face a conundrum: either conform to the stereotypical road of a young woman her age and class -- go to college, meet a nice boy, settle down, be his helpmate -- or, less simply, follow in the footsteps of her idols. She chose the path of least resistance. (After all, things didn't end so rosy for Roiphe's early role models, Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath.)
Even readers who call this a cop-out will be fascinated by this memoir of a woman who matures quickly and finally finds a voice. Her own voice.
And oh, what a voice!
"Art and Madness: A Memoir of Lust Without Reason" (Nan A. Talese, 240 pages, $24.95) is arranged between two time frames, her 1950s college years at Smith and her disastrous 1960s marriage to the deeply troubled playwright, Jack Richardson. While this back-and-forth organizational choice might have been distracting in lesser hands, Roiphe's seamless transitions between the two periods in her life play a useful role in explaining her development as a writer.
The younger Roiphe shows glimmerings of her adult good judgment when she realizes her blue-stocking teacher who wore "mannish suits and men's shoes" was to be adored despite her sartorial shortcomings. "I loved her with that fierce love of a girl for a woman who knows what the words on the page really mean."
Later, though, Roiphe is still seeking an interlocutor when she marries Jack.
"There had never been a moment in my conscious life when I was not planning on becoming a writer. ... But from the first trip across the Fifty-Ninth Street Bridge with Jack I lost the desire to write. I wanted Jack to write the words that he could write. ... I thought I had found my place, which was to type his manuscripts carefully, to put them in envelopes and mail them to editors."
Soon, though, it's clear that Richardson has a disastrous drinking problem and he enjoys the company of prostitutes more than hers. His bad behavior leads to a bit of philandering of her own, and along the way Roiphe offers a rare view inside the boozy boys' club of New York's Paris Review set that proves a literary voyeur's dream.
Roiphe goes through the motions of trying to forgive her first husband for his shortcomings ("He was not meant for ordinary tasks of mortal days," she reasons), yet has more difficulty letting herself off the hook for undertaking the ill-advised marriage. Hence her book's subtitle "A Memoir of Lust Without Reason."
Mercifully, Roiphe eventually brings herself to place her own manuscripts into those envelopes. The end result is a successful writing career about topics from a feminist perspective. Therefore, it is art -- not madness -- that allows her to find her own voice, and in doing so, Roiphe inspired a whole new generation of female writers in need of idols of their own.
Andrea Hoag is a book critic in Lawrence, Kan.