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Friday, April 13, 2012

Diary of a Mad Housewife by Sue Kaufman, Random House, 1967.

Before Bettina "Tina" Balser became Mrs. Jonathan Balser, she studied Art History, shared an apartment with another female artist for nearly two years until her father finally convinced that starving was no way to live regardless of their monthly lunch dates and the cash he would slip her to help out. Their father-daughter relationship is strong, so Tina takes her father's advice and moves back home, gets her 'headshrinked' where she's told her art is basically shit, takes a secretarial course to get a 'real job' and eventually meets Jonathan- an idealistic lawyer working in the District Attorney's Office.

After the birth of their first child, he leaves that position for corporate law and soon baby number two is on the way.  At the same time, Jonation makes partner in his firm, and his father dies, leaving him $90,000. And then he changes, causing everything in Tina's life to alter dramatically. Jonathan becomes a social climbing wanna-be with the New York elite, attending parties, talking with producers, writers and wealthy uptown folks that have little interest in him, but will take his money to finance theater and invest in stocks. He insists his wife keep up with 'what's happening' by reading art magazines. He requires Tina to decorate the house with real antiques and art: ""What I want is a place that is a mixture of things-antiques, but real antiques, no reproductions, the best of the modern designer's, like a Barcelona chair, only no a Barcelona chair because everybody has them, and a lot of really first-rate art-a place that has that great, rich, eclectic look..." (41-42).

As the novel builds and builds around Tina's need for pills, her growing hatred of her husband and his boring, eye-rolling requests for an 'ole roll in the hay,' her psychological push over the edge grows near. She has an affair with playwright George Prager. The sex is fantastic, but he's a prick and perhaps even more so than Jonathan. My frustration with Tina heightened with her choice of lover; she's already married to a verbally abusive man with nothing but disregard for her as a woman and a person, and she seeks 'refuge' with a man who is crude and also very controlling. As the affair continues Tina begins to break down further due to her fear of pregnancy by her lover: "Twelve days late the curse is, counting today" (281). She confronts George and he practically spits in her face telling her to see an abortionist if she's so concerned.

A major event that occurs shortly after this scene is the elevator fire in Tina's building. As she is running down the emergency stairwell she is stopped by ex-Ziegfeld girl Carrie O'Sullivan. Realizing the fire is under control, she accepts an
invitation into Carrie's apartment along with some other women in the building and while there she "...became aware of the physical sensations I was having and what they meant... I'd been having a marvelous time. I dragged Folly [her poodle] away from Carrie, said goodbye to all the ladies in rollers and slacks and Brunch Coats... walked back up the two flights to our apartment and confirmed the good news" (294). Yes, her period arrived, she is not pregnant, and because of this and the 'group session' with Carrie and the women and Tina writes "... I know at last what I'm going to settle for and who I'm going to be. Who? Who is that? Why, Tabitha-Twitchit-Danvers, of course. The lady with the apron. And checklists. And keys. It's me. Oh it's very me, and I can't for the life of me see why I didn't realize that before.. I suppose, for one thing, Jonathan wouldn't let me. It hardly fits his image of what a wife of a Renaissance Man should be. Well, I've tried to be his image, tried to be a lot of things, but now I know. That's who I'm going to be, and if Jonathan doesn't like it he can lump it. Tabitha-Twitchit-Danvers-Me" (295).

Part of me wishes the novel ended there because this last paragraph is brilliant and although I 'hope' it is not so tidy an ending as many good novels do as does this one, it ends on a note that is not the end and questions whether Tina will ever be happy. Jonathan admits they are broke, had an affair and got his head-shrinked only to find out that he's the problem in their marriage. This late evening conversation between Tina and Jonathan is all about him; she decides not to confess her own affair: "Though I knew it might help him, might make him feel better about himself if I too Confessed, I decided I would never tell him about George. What for? I had nothing to gain, and everything to lose, once his brief spell of feeling better about himself was over" (305). Here, Tina is not so convinced that all her Jonathan's confessions are going to change a thing. Fresh start or not.

There is so much to discuss and consider after reading this novel:
·         Why settle on being the anxious Tom Kitten mother and dark and narrow Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca?   
·         Although my entry focuses on Tina and her husband, the relationship she maintains with her two daughters is most intriguing. They push her around and treat her with disrespect just as their father does until Tina slaps one of them across the face and the conversation between them is not of a child and mother.
Diary of a Mad Housewife is a fantastic novel. While reading it a friend asked me if I thought it would become a classic. I think it's already a feminist classic sharing ranks with The Women's Room, Handmaid's Tale, The Stepford Wives, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen and many others. 

Have you read Diary of a Mad Housewife? What are your thoughts? What are you reading? Anything strike you lately? I'd love to hear about it.

Recommended dish: Waldorf Salad.

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