Isaacs, Susan 1943–
Isaacs, Susan 1943–
PERSONAL: Born December 7, 1943, in Brooklyn, NY; daughter of Morton (an electrical engineer) and Helen (a homemaker; maiden name, Asher) Isaacs; married Elkan Abramowitz (an attorney), August 11, 1968; children: Andrew, Elizabeth. Education: Attended Queens College (now Queens College of the City University of New York). Politics: Democratic Religion: Jewish
CAREER: Novelist, essayist, and screenwriter. Seventeen magazine, New York, NY, 1966–70, began as assistant editor, became senior editor; freelance writer, 1970–76; political speech writer for Democratic candidates in Brooklyn and Queens, New York, and for president of the borough of Queens, New York, NY; movie producer.
MEMBER: International Association of Crime Writers, PEN (executive board member, 1993–97), Mystery Writers of America (national board member, chair of committee for freedom of speech, president, 2001), National Book Critics Circle, Creative Coalition, International Association of Crime Writers, Adams Round Table, American Society of Journalists and Authors, Adams Round Table, Poets & Writers (member of board of directors, 1994–99, Chairman, 1999–), Feminists for Free Expression, Queens College Foundation (trustee), Walt Whitman Birthplace Association (trustee), North Shore Child and Family Guidance Association (trustee), Nassau County Coalition against Domestic Violence Advisory Board.
AWARDS, HONORS: D.Litt., Dowling College, 1988; Queens College Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award, 1996; John Steinbeck Award, 1999.
Compromising Positions (also see below), Times Books (New York, NY), 1978.
Close Relations, Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1980.
Almost Paradise, Harper (New York, NY), 1984.
Shining Through, Harper (New York, NY), 1988.
Magic Hour, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1991.
After All These Years, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1993.
Lily White, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1996.
Red, White, and Blue, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1998.
Long Time No See, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2001.
Any Place I Hang My Hat, Scribner (New York, NY), 2004.
Compromising Positions (screenplay; based on her novel of the same name), Paramount, 1985.
(And coproducer) Hello Again (screenplay), Buena Vista, 1987.
Brave Dames and Wimpettes: What Women Are Really Doing on Page and Screen, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1999.
Also contributor of reviews to newspapers, including New York Times, Newsday, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times.
ADAPTATIONS: Shining Through was adapted for film by David Seltzer and released by Twentieth Century-Fox, 1992.
SIDELIGHTS: Susan Isaacs's popular and critically acclaimed novels feature a distinctive type of heroine. In her books, a Time reviewer summarized, "secretaries, housewives, the faceless masses of womanhood, all run into phone booths, change clothes, and come out like Cleopatra with the rectitude of Eleanor Roosevelt." This transformation begins when common people come in contact with uncommon events. Isaacs's characters confront murder, political intrigue, even World War II espionage. In spite of such daunting circumstances, the typical Isaacs protagonist displays an engaging sense of humor and a "can-do" attitude which ultimately prevails.
Isaacs achieved critical notice with her first novel, 1978's Compromising Positions, a book that Chicago Tribune contributor Clarence Petersen described as "the seeming result of an Erica Jong-Joan Rivers collaboration on a Nancy Drew mystery." The protagonist of the book is Judith Singer, a bored homemaker who seeks an outlet for her underemployed intelligence by playing detective after her periodontist is found murdered. Judith's list of suspects grows as she discovers that several of her neighbors—the attractive, upwardly mobile wives of successful men—had not only been seduced by the dentist, but were photographed in pornographic poses. While investigating the murder, Judith is romanced by a police officer, and then confronted by her dull but dutiful husband. In the end, she discovers a vital clue in the photographs that resolves the mystery. Compromising Positions' blend of humor, mystery, and a generous dash of sexual situations made it a bestseller. Critical response was also encouraging, though more reserved. New York Times Book Review contributor Jack Sullivan praised the novel's direction and humor, but criticized its lack of consistency. "What begins as a brilliant parody of suburban potboilers," Sullivan wrote, "ends by becoming one itself." A Publishers Weekly reviewer was more positive, noting that "the dialogue is ribald and wisecracking, the action fast and furious every step of the way."
Isaacs draws on her experience as a political speech writer in her second novel, Close Relations. The protagonist, Marcia Green, is a divorced woman working for a New York gubernatorial candidate. Against the backdrop of the campaign, Marcia becomes involved with two men—one Jewish and one Catholic—and her sexual encounters with each are treated in graphic detail. Washington Post Book World reviewer Susan Cheever noted Isaacs's refreshing portrayal of a female character who possesses "the kind of sexual appetites that have traditionally been a male prerogative—at least in literature." Publishers Weekly contributor Barbara A. Bannon was also impressed with Close Relations, emphasizing the book's "snappy dialogue yielding up laughs on every page, the love story tender and satisfying, the plot pulsing with adrenalin."
Isaacs's next effort, Almost Paradise, also turns on a love story, this one between Nick Cobleigh, member of a wealthy family and a successful actor, and Jane Heissenhuber, a lower-class woman who was raised by abusive parents. In a contemporary twist on the Cinderella story, poor Jane marries rich Nick, but they do not live happily ever after. Jane suffers from frigidity and agoraphobia; Nick has several extramarital affairs. The couple eventually separate, but are about to be reconciled when a sudden death brings the story to a close.
Almost Paradise received a cooler critical reaction than its Isaacs-penned predecessors. Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Kenneth Atchity was particularly critical of the novel's conclusion, terming it a "shockingly happenstance, tragic ending." New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani also found fault with the book. "The characters not only speak in clichés," Kakutani wrote, "most of them are clichés." Other reviews were more favorable. Anna Shapiro, writing in the New York Times Book Review, found flaws in the novel but suggested that "one is reading too absorbedly to notice." Shapiro also praised Isaacs's pacing, emphasizing the author's ability to "keep the plot boiling."
For 1988's Shining Through, Isaacs moves away from her contemporary settings. Drawing readers back to World War II, she presents an intrigue that revolves around a secretary who becomes an American spy. This new subject matter challenged Isaacs, causing her to struggle with her portrayal of Linda Voss, the novel's protagonist. "She's not that easy to capture," Isaacs once explained. "There are enormous changes in the character; she goes from being a rather ordinary legal secretary to be something of a hero, having gotten involved in the war." In the course of her adventure, Linda, a Jew, puts herself at risk by posing as a cook in Nazi Germany; romance also figures in the saga as she tries to win the affections of her married boss. New York Times Book Review contributor Anne Tolstoi Wallach compared the book to films from the 1940s, "in which someone pretty much like us takes incredible risks for unimpeachable motives and wins just what we wanted." Wallach also applauded Isaacs's successful exploration of new subjects: "Like her girl-next-door heroines, she takes risks and her readers reap the rewards."
Having begun her literary career with the mystery Compromising Positions, Isaacs returned to familiar ground with her next effort, Magic Hour. Here the sleuth is Steve Brady, a Bridgehampton, Long Island, homicide detective and one of the few male protagonists to be found in Isaacs's work. Brady is a Vietnam veteran with a past record of abusing drugs and alcohol. Though he is engaged to be married, his plans undergo a sudden change when a movie producer is found murdered. In the course of the investigation, Brady falls for Bonnie, the victim's ex-wife and one of several suspects in the case. When the facts point to Bonnie as the murderer, Brady is forced to choose between his heart and his duty as a detective.
New York Times Book Review contributor Helen Dudar found that "it takes a while for the story to develop the kind of narrative drive a light novel of this sort wants." Despite this shortcoming, though, Dudar complimented Isaacs's "wicked eye for small, telling detail," and was impressed by the author's satiric portraits of affluent Long Island residents. Ultimately, Dudar found that reading Magic Hour "is like polishing off an entire box of chocolates. You know it can't be nourishing, but it is fun." Carolyn Banks, writing in the Washington Post Book World, was more enthusiastic, noting that "the plot is streamlined and the time-frame is short and the voice we hear is witty, and coming-right-at-us-real…. Isaacs never writes a mere mystery … but something more."
Isaacs continues her line of successful whodunits with After All These Years. The heroine, Rosie, is married to Richie, a recent millionaire due to his software company who has taken to being called Rick, among other affectations of his new wealth. Promptly after a lavish celebration of their silver wedding anniversary, Rick/Richie announces he is leaving Rosie for his beautiful—and younger—VP, Jessica. Later, however, Rosie finds Rick/Richie dead from a knife wound on her kitchen floor and, knowing herself to be the primary suspect—her fingerprints are on the knife—she sets out to find her husband's true killer. Although, as Barbara Raskin noted in the New York Times Book Review, "it's not hard to figure out who will win," the critic declared, "Still, you gotta laugh." Other reviewers also found After All These Years to be an enjoyable, if light, tale. "This is a good, fast, illogical read for the beach or plane; just don't ask questions. In a fairy tale, all things are possible," remarked Dorothy Uhnak in the Washington Post Book World. Taffy Cannon, contributor to the Los Angeles Times Book Review, found deeper meaning in the tale: After All These Years "could stand on its own as a credible mystery, but it's more than that. It seriously examines the plight of the discarded wife." Cannon concluded, however, that, "More to the point … it's pure fun and perfectly timed for summer reading."
In Lily White Isaacs combines elements of a murder mystery with a family history reminiscent of a therapy session. Lily White is a criminal defense lawyer in the suburb of Shorehaven, a far cry from her previous role in the Manhattan district attorney's office. She takes on the case of Norman, a con man accused of the murder of his latest victim. While chronicling Lily's efforts to find Norman innocent, Isaacs relates Lily's dysfunctional family history. Reviewers were mixed in their opinions of Isaacs's experiment. Calling it a "one-volume vacation reader," Elaine Kendall, writing for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, found "the route somewhat more circuitous than necessary." Jon Katz, contributing to the New York Times Book Review, lauded Lily White as "a big, fat, happy feast of a book," but noted, "the effect [of the two tales] is inevitably herky-jerky." Time reviewer John Skow was even more critical: "The flashback chapters [into Lily's family history] turn a tidy, well-told book into a fat, soggy one."
Isaacs breaks with her usual suspense novel format in Red, White, and Blue, a multigenerational tale of Jewish immigrants who strive for success in America. Though the book begins by chronicling the family's difficult early years in their adoptive country, it eventually develops a more romantic story line involving two characters who are distantly related. Lauren Miller is a reporter for a newspaper and Charlie Blair is an FBI agent. Both are investigating a white supremacy group in Wyoming, which quest leads to their meeting. Mary Frances Wilkens, reviewing the novel for Booklist, found that in Red, White, and Blue "Isaacs smoothly combines what could have been two different novels into one." Though a writer for Publishers Weekly praised Isaacs's research and considered her depictions of the white supremacist movement to be convincing, the critic felt that the book's "sappy" love story "overwhelms" the narrative. Wilkens, however, deemed the story "creative and exciting" and "superbly entertaining." Barbara E. Kemp agreed in her Library Journal review, writing that Red, White, and Blue "pose[s] … deeper questions about what it means to be an American."
In Brave Dames and Wimpettes: What Women Are Really Doing on Page and Screen, Isaacs examines how women are typically portrayed in television, film, and fiction. She finds that, as Laura Ellingson explained in a Women and Language review, "too many of the heroines offered up as icons for women are really wimpettes, whom we would be wise to reject rather than emulate. In contrast, too few brave dames provide inspiration and sound role models for women." Isaacs describes a wimpette as someone who is seemingly beautiful and strong, but is actually weak and is just trying to be what everyone else wants her to be. In contrast, a brave dame is a woman who is "passionate about something besides passion." Ellingson noted that "this book has several strengths to recommend it as a supplementary text for undergraduate courses," including the fact that "many of the examples are very recent, so students will have seen many of the movies and television programs and may identify with icons they feel are from their own generation." Yet other reviewers expressed less enthusiasm for the book. A critic for Publishers Weekly suggested that Isaacs's "foray into cultural criticism quickly turns into an object lesson on oversimplification" and concluded that "though no 'wimpette,' Isaacs fails to deliver deep insights or hardened convictions. She remains a popular entertainer at heart." Ellingson, while observing that Isaacs "recognizes that cultural prescriptions for pleasing plots surround us from the very beginning of our lives," nonetheless finds merit in many depictions of women. "Isaacs's text," the critic concluded, "can be a great help in articulating what is good and bad about female characters in the media."
After twenty years and a multitude of events, Isaacs brings back the character from her debut novel in Long Time No See. The book brings readers up to speed on what has happened with Judith Singer over the past two decades, reintroducing some familiar characters while adding several new ones into the mix. The plot revolves around a "perfect housewife" who is reported missing following a trip to the store on Halloween. Eventually the body is discovered and that is where Judith steps in with enthusiasm. The book goes on to chronicle the list of suspects, which includes the victim's husband, Greg. In the end Judith solves the murder and ends the mystery.
A reviewer for Publishers Weekly wrote of Long Time No See that "the twenty years between Isaacs's best-selling Compromising Positions and this second book to feature amateur sleuth Judith Singer have not affected the author's talent for snappy dialogue and astringent assessments of cant and pretension," but added that "Judith's investigation, despite several clever twists, goes on too long, as does the murderer's bizarre confession." On the whole, though, the book and its protagonist enjoyed positive reviews, with Barbara Kemp writing in Library Journal that "the familiar mix of murder, humor, and wry social observation will delight [Isaacs's] many readers." Booklist reviewer Carrie Bissey added that "a gripping plot with skillfully rendered secondary characters and plenty of tart humor make this sequel every bit as entertaining as its predecessor."
Isaacs draws on her experience in politics to create Amy Lincoln, the protagonist of her thriller Any Place I Hang My Hat. As a reporter covering the campaign of the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, Senator Thomas Bowles, Lincoln discovers that the senator has an illegitimate son. Rather than racing to the newsdesk with the scoop of the scandal, Amy is forced to confront her own past, "abandonment by her mother when she was only a baby, visitations to her father in prison, and being raised by her shoplifting grandmother," which ultimately creates the crux of the novel, her desire to help Freddy Carasco, the Senator's son, "reunite with his birth family," as Mary Frances Wilkens wrote in Booklist. Wilkens added that, "while Isaacs's plots often drift precariously close to cliché, she usually rights the ship with her keen sense of humor and character." A critic for Publishers Weekly concurred, noting that "the parade of lavishly and loopishly described secondary characters and gossipy New York scene-setting give the novel its zing."
In addition to her success as a novelist, Isaacs has also done well in transforming her tales for the screen. Her first exposure to the film industry came when she wrote the screenplay for Compromising Positions. Since that time she has written and coproduced a second movie, Hello Again, and has seen Shining Through adapted for the big screen. Whatever genre she is working in, Isaacs finds the writing process to be demanding but rewarding. She once explained: "There are always those days that you think you'd have been better off as a computer programmer, that you say to yourself, why am I doing this? I have no talent for it. Days when the prose is leaden, the work is lonely…. But most of the time, I enjoy it. It seems to me it's a legitimized way of telling yourself stories, and I guess very often I get that same thumb-sucking pleasure that a child gets from daydreaming. That part of it I like a lot."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 32, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1985.
Isaacs, Susan, Brave Dames and Wimpettes: What Women Are Really Doing on Page and Screen, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1999.
Bloomsbury Review, November, 1999, review of Brave Dames and Wimpettes, p. 19.
Booklist, May 1, 1996, p. 1469; September 15, 1998, Mary Frances Wilkens, review of Red, White, and Blue, p. 173; July, 2001, Carrie Bissey, review of Long Time No See, p. 1950; July, 2004, Mary Frances Wilkens, review of Any Place I Hang My Hat.
Books, June, 1997, review of Lily White, p. 19.
Chicago Tribune Book World, March 25, 1984; September 1, 1985; September 4, 1985.
Detroit News, November 9, 1980; March 18, 1984.
Entertainment Weekly, April 18, 1997, review of Lily White, p. 63; November 13, 1998, review of Red, White, and Blue, p. 70; February 5, 1999, review of Brave Dames and Wimpettes, p. 64.
Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 1998, review of Red, White, and Blue, p. 1313; December 15, 1998, review of Brave Dames and Wimpettes, p. 1776.
Kliatt, July, 1997, review of Lily White, p. 48; May, 1999, review of Red, White, and Blue, p. 63; July, 1999, review of Brave Dames and Wimpettes, p. 57; September, 1999, review of Red, White, and Blue, p. 58.
Ladies' Home Journal, September, 2001, Shana Aborn, "A Woman of Mystery" (interview), p. 38.
Library Journal, February 15, 1997, review of Lily White, p. 175; October 15, 1998, Barbara E. Kemp, review of Red, White, and Blue, p. 98; January, 1999, Melanie C. Duncan, review of Red, White, and Blue, p. 188; February 1, 2000, Laurie Selwyn, review of Red, White, and Blue, p. 133; August, 2001, Barbara E. Kemp, review of Long Time No See, p. 161.
Los Angeles Times, September 1, 1980; August 30, 1985.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 4, 1984, Kenneth Atchity, review of Almost Paradise; July 11, 1993, Taffy Cannon, review of After All These Years, p. 2; July 28, 1996, Elaine Kendall, review of Lily White, p. 4.
Newsweek, May 1, 1978.
New Yorker, May 15, 1978.
New York Times, February 1, 1984; August 30, 1985; September 30, 2001, Karen Karbo, "Nice Lawn!"
New York Times Book Review, April 30, 1978, Jack Sullivan, review of Compromising Positions; February 12, 1984, Anna Shapiro, review of Almost Paradise; September 11, 1988, Anne Tolstoi Wallach, review of Shining Through, p. 13; January 20, 1991, Helen Dudar, review of Magic Hour, p. 12; July 11, 1993, Barbara Raskin, review of After All These Years, p. 26; June 30, 1996, Jon Katz, review of Lily White, p. 19; April 13, 1997, review of Lily White, p. 32; December 20, 1998, Nora Krug, review of Red, White, and Blue, p. 18.
People, April 24, 1978; April 30, 1984.
Publishers Weekly, January 9, 1978; January 23, 1978; July 25, 1980; September 12, 1980; January 4, 1985; May 13, 1996, p. 54; September 7, 1998, review of Red, White, and Blue, p. 82; December 14, 1998, review of Brave Dames and Wimpettes, p. 68; February 1, 1999, review of Brave Dames and Wimpettes, p. 36; July 23, 2001, review of Long Time No See, p. 47; August 2, 2004, review of Any Place I Hang My Hat.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 20, 1998, Sue Ann Wood, "Susan Isaacs Remains Serious in Her Latest Installment," p. D3.
Time, October 3, 1988; July 15, 1996, John Skow, review of Lily White, p. 68.
Times (London, England), April 3, 1997, Bronwen Maddox, "Carving a Career out of Murder, Betrayal, and Adultery," p. 21.
Times Literary Supplement, November 3, 1978.
Washington Post, September 3, 1985; November 8, 1998, Mike Musgrove, review of Red, White, and Blue, p. 4; September 2, 2001, Carolyn Banks, "Horsing Around," p. T10.
Washington Post Book World, August 31, 1980, Susan Cheever, review of Close Relations; February 12, 1984; January 27, 1991, Carolyn Banks, review of Magic Hour, p. 1; July 4, 1993, Dorothy Uhnak, review of After All These Years, p. 3; November 8, 1998, review of Red, White, and Blue, p. 4.
Women and Language, fall, 1999, Laura L. Ellingson, review of Brave Dames and Wimpettes, p. 37.
Writer, February, 1997, Lewis Burke Frumkes, "A Conversation with … Susan Isaacs" (interview), pp. 25-27.
Susan Isaacs Web site, http://www.susanisaacs.com/ (August 25, 2004).