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When She Was Good [Paperback]

Philip Roth
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

4 Oct 2007

In this mesmerizing, funny, chilling novel. the setting is a small town in the 1940s Midwest, the subject the heart of a wounded and ferociously moralistic young woman.

When she was still a child, Lucy Nelson had her alcoholic failure of a father thrown in jail. Ever since then she has been trying to reform the men around her, even if that ultimately means destroying herself in the process. With his unerring portraits of Lucy and her hapless, childlike husband, Roy, Roth has created an uncompromising work of fictional realism, a vision of provincial American piety, yearning and discontent that is at once pitiless and compassionate.


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Product details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (4 Oct 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099484994
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099484998
  • Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 296,663 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

In 1997, Philip Roth won the Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral. In 1998 he received the National Medal of Arts at the White House and in 2002 the highest award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Gold Medal in Fiction. He has twice won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He has won the PEN/Faulkner Award three times. In 2005 The Plot Against America received the Society of American Historians' Prize for "the outstanding historical novel on an American theme for 2003-2004". Recently Roth received PEN's two most prestigious prizes: in 2006 the PEN/Nabokov Award and in 2007 the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for achievement in American fiction. Roth is the only living American writer to have his work published in a comprehensive, definitive edition by the Library of America.

Product Description

Review

"Roth is a living master" (Harold Bloom New York Review of Books)

"High, careful tragedy, nasty as life, and Roth emerges...as a Dreiser who can write!" (Stanley Elkin)

"Compassion mingles with horror in a superb portrayal of a young woman's obsession with moral rectitude" (Saturday Review)

Book Description

An early novel from Philip Roth, exploring the effects of alcoholism on a family.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars It is only once in a great while, 12 Jun 1997
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
even in the work of such a crafty writer as Philip Roth, that the "roundness" of a character (which we are taught to admire and comment on in our reviews) takes on an even higher dimension of reality in order to make its (her, in this case) presence felt. To put it another way: if Tricky of Roth's Our Gang is essentially flat--that is, 2-dimensional--then his Alexander Portnoy is very round (he undergoes change), and consequently more real.

In When She Was Good, we are introduced to that rare 4-dimensional character, and her name is Lucy Nelson. Besides going through changes, she absorbs momentum; a sort of manic kineticism acts on her while she acts on her immediate circle of friends and family. Because of this treatment, and some intriguing structural techniques that ought to remind the reader of Faulkner, the "same" Lucy who evokes deep sympathy eventually demands of us that we dismiss or even ridicule her, until this amazing last page...

To deal with a 4-dimensional character (Hamlet is another example of one) requires a touch of literary mysticism. We must treat the novel as a reality, a chunk of life, instead of a mere representation. Like the main characters of great films (e.g. Citizen Kane), Lucy Nelson bothers our categorization-impulse by putting her internal contradictions in high relief. And she does this without the mimetic advantages that a film possesses.

On the whole, When She Was Good is not Roth's best novel; we do not expect it to be, when we see the photo of Roth (apparently in his mid twenties) on the flap.
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A very well written book but not a nice book . The main character is so self righteous and moralistic she is impossible to life with or be around. Her husband is weak in character but likeable. Parts of the book are quite upsetting. it describes very well the dreadful effects Alcoholism has on all members of a family. the ending is quite horrific.
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4.0 out of 5 stars File under 'homage'- but read it first! 15 May 2010
Format:Paperback
Philip Roth's second novel, a compelling reworking of naturalist cliche that chides the hypocrisy of 50s suburban America, is not a great introduction to the author's work. That's not to say it isn't, well, good, just that it is far from being representative of his (extensive) back catalogue. It does, however, feature one of Roth's more memorable female characters in lucy Nelson- so memorable that the author was to use it as a defence against accusations of misogyny in his later work. Although Roth's tongue was probably in his cheek, the point is an interesting one- and the book well worth a read.

OK- the book is bound by the authors it imitates; anyone familiar with, say, Edith Wharton will be able to map the plot pretty accurately. And yeah, sometimes it doesn't quite develop its own style. But the book amply succeeds in reworking the familiar story of affluent hypocrisy to aim at the suburban conventions familiar to us in everything from 'Little Shop of Horrors' to 'Desperate Housewives'. And it is precisely this which links it to Roth's otherwise divergent back catalogue- the send up of Swede Lvov in 'American Pastoral', the cynical manipulation of political correctness Delphine Roux espouses in 'The Human Stain'. I could go on.

'When She Was Good' is largely overlooked due to its melodrama and dependence upon its predecessors, but don't let that put you off. It's a quick read, although (like most longer Roth) it drags in places. The characterisation is top-notch and its relentless pessimism often shows Roth at his downcast best. Just don't come into this expecting a quip-filled zinger along the lines of 'Portnoy's Complaint'- probably a much more representative 'Roth' text- and you'll uncover a much-underrated book.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Couldn't put it down 12 Mar 1999
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
Just finished reading it... While I have doubts about the (invisible) transformation Lucy experiences at the very end of the book, this is still one of the better written tragedies of the last few decades. Lucy Nelson/Bassart is horribly, fascinatingly real, convincing on almost every page, and Roth's usual unflinching approach to the thoughts of his characters was first demonstrated here, in his third book.

There isn't much of the stylistic flare here that we see in Roth's later books, but it's well-written and compulsive reading, as Lucy is such a compelling character, in spite of the reader learning early on what ultimately became of her. As the last reviewer noted, she is an unusually vibrant, real character, and if I detect a note of mysoginism from Roth in her, it's not too difficult to forgive.

This really is an unusual book; its flaws of predictability and melodrama are overshadowed by its strengths.
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Amazon.com: 3.6 out of 5 stars  17 reviews
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An excellent read 5 Aug 2001
By E. Cox - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
There are few pleasures comparable to reading good prose. Sharply defined characters are to be expected of any writer worthy of publication; similarly, a good plot is rudimentary to decent storytelling. The fact that these nuts-and-bolts components of fiction are singled out for praise in contemporary fiction is an indication of the alarmingly sharp decline of basic literacy over the past 40 years. Good prose, on the other hand, is the result of talent. The prose of When She Was Good is a delight, and well worth enduring the novel's at times heavy-handed critique of Midwestern religiosity and morality in general.
The novel, an odd combination of satire and naturalism, follows three generations of the Nelson family, whose Scandanavian roots are apparently responsible for the ferociously puritanical streak in the work's tragic main character, young Lucy. Roth's insistence on making Lucy a symbol of "putritan America" leads to an unfortunately hyperbolic ending in what is otherwise a carefully constrained character study of an ordinary family dealing with alcoholism. Having attained the enlightenment of adolescence, Lucy decides to deal with her father's drinking harshly and unforgivingly, setting in motion a series of catastrophes that include her own forced marriage to an endearingly naive and well-intentioned young man -- by far the book's most sympathetic character -- Roy Bassart.
This is excellent story-telling, sharp and clear and vivid. Not every reader will share Roth's point of view or his characterizations, but my, what talent.
21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars It is only once in a great while, 12 Jun 1997
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
even in the work of such a crafty writer as Philip Roth, that the "roundness" of a character (which we are taught to admire and comment on in our reviews) takes on an even higher dimension of reality in order to make its (her, in this case) presence felt. To put it another way: if Tricky of Roth's Our Gang is essentially flat--that is, 2-dimensional--then his Alexander Portnoy is very round (he undergoes change), and consequently more real.

In When She Was Good, we are introduced to that rare 4-dimensional character, and her name is Lucy Nelson. Besides going through changes, she absorbs momentum; a sort of manic kineticism acts on her while she acts on her immediate circle of friends and family. Because of this treatment, and some intriguing structural techniques that ought to remind the reader of Faulkner, the "same" Lucy who evokes deep sympathy eventually demands of us that we dismiss or even ridicule her, until this amazing last page...

To deal with a 4-dimensional character (Hamlet is another example of one) requires a touch of literary mysticism. We must treat the novel as a reality, a chunk of life, instead of a mere representation. Like the main characters of great films (e.g. Citizen Kane), Lucy Nelson bothers our categorization-impulse by putting her internal contradictions in high relief. And she does this without the mimetic advantages that a film possesses.

On the whole, When She Was Good is not Roth's best novel; we do not expect it to be, when we see the photo of Roth (apparently in his mid twenties) on the flap. But that youngster, who went on to stand at the peak of quality and the edge of style in American letters, delivered one of the most compelling ethical statements of our day: systems of moral duties must be constantly fine-tuned when we deal with living, breathing persons instead of hypotheses.

Roth has given us such a person in Lucy Nelson.

Matthew Wayne (scrumle@acad.udallas.edu)
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Domestic Dispute 23 Jun 2007
By JMack - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Those of us that have seen a friend or family member in a bad marital situation may want to look away when they read this book. "When She Was Good" is almost too realistic at times, which can make it uncomfortable to read. It is a sad and painful story, yet it is hard to dismiss as a bad story.

Lucy, the main character of the story, grows up in a home with an abusive alcoholic mother. Seemingly on top of the world, she becomes pregnant during her freshman year of college by Roy. Roy is a somewhat doltish man who has just returned from two years of military service. Convincing Roy to "do the right thing" and marry her seems to begin the downfall of her character. Once contemplating becoming a nun, Lucy has become a controlling wife. In a strange twist of fate, Lucy evolves into all that she loathed in her father in the respect that her own child finds her intolerable and her husband leaves her. The situation mirrors her father being run out of her mother's house.

Lucy is a deeply flawed character that readers will have difficultly liking. Lucy is initially a very moral charcter but has difficuly seeing her faults and eventual backslide. Because Roy and his family are even more vilainous, readers may have difficulty identifying with anybody in the story. Only when Lucy reaches her breaking point does the reader begin to feel sympathy. But knowing Lucy created her own problems, some readers may still have trouble feeling sorry for her.

I really have had trouble deciding if I like this book. I am a fan of many of Roth's other works, yet I find some of his books to be uncomfortably personal and intruding. This is a credit to Roth as a writer even if some readers may not like the feeling of his writing.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Parabolic? Possibly. Prosaic? Pshaw! 13 Feb 2011
By Michael Hooks - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
If Roth's novel, When She Was Good, has a moral, it concerns the dangers of self-righteousness. It reveals that a strategy of magnifying the faults of others and refusing to acknowledge our own is a greater fault, even in a category by itself. This defect, though prevalent among us humans, separates us from reality (or truth, one of the protagonist's, Lucy Nelson, favorite words). It leaves us incapable to forgive others, why can't he/she be more like me, and strangely deletes the possibility to forgive ourselves.

The idea that this is a misogynistic novel belies the above reviewer's view of women, not Roth's. If Lucy Nelson is a prototype woman, then God help us all. Clearly she is not. Rather, this character reveals a part of each of us. And remember, although Lucy is the hyperbolic version of sanctimoniousness, she is not alone. The grandfather reveals his condemning thoughts while waiting for his son-in-law's bus; Roy, Lucy's husband, rants about his ignorant professors and faults them for his own failures; etc... "This is humanity. This is you. This is me,"--seems to be the author's point. And thankfully he reminds us at the end that change and grace are possible, even if it comes via struggling, imperfect human love, and may have bitter-sweet results.

Here is a case of fiction doing what it does best--delighting with prose while shedding light on the non-fiction of our lives.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Lucy against the rest of the world 16 Feb 2014
By H. Schneider - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This novel from 1967 is not what one might expect from Philip Roth. It is neither about Jewish people or problems, nor is it funny or ironical, nor is there his alter ego in the story anywhere.
It is a realistic, but extreme story set mostly around 1950 in small town Midwest. The subject is not so different from Roth's previous novel Letting Go: troubles of young people with relationships. A focus is on unwanted and unaffordable teenage pregnancy, and the consequences.

The title heroine is Lucy. Her grandfather Willard is a solid, decent man, but weak. He tries to take care of his handicapped sister, but fails and gives up. He tries in vain to help his daughter's husband, who struggles with unemployment and alcoholism, and can't get on his feet. He can't avoid that granddaughter Lucy goes the same wrong way, marries young and the wrong man.

Lucy is an ambiguous heroine. We can sympathize with her problems, but she doesn't make it easy on us. Actually, she is contrarian and unreasonable. She is angry, which is understandable, but rarely likable. She is brutally honest and consistent, but self-righteous and unpleasant. Straight out of real life.
She hates her father, the drinker and wife beater, and despises her husband, the lazy weakling. We don't disagree with her in that respect, but her frustrated sense of entitlement is not so pleasant either.
She lives and fails with her rigid way of being 'good'.
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