Born May 28, 1959, in New York, NY; daughter of Morton (a psychologist) and Hilma (a novelist; maiden name, Liebman) Wolitzer; married Richard Panek (an author); children: two sons. Education: Attended Smith College, 1977-79; Brown University, B.A., 1981.
Home—New York, NY. Agent—Peter Matson, Literistic Ltd., 264 5th Ave., New York, NY.
Writer. Skidmore College and Iowa Writer's Workshop, University of Iowa, writing instructor.
Winner of Ms. fiction contest, 1979, for "Diversions"; MacDowell Colony fellowship, 1981; Yaddo residency, 1983; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1994; Pushcart Prize, 1998.
Sleepwalking (novel), Random House, 1982.
Caribou (juvenile), Greenwillow, 1984.
Sparks, Houghton, 1985.
Hidden Pictures, Houghton, 1986.
The Dream Book, Greenwillow (New York, NY), 1986.
This Is Your Life, Crown (New York, NY), 1988.
(With Jesse Green) Nutcrackers: Devilishly Addictive Mind Twisters for the Insatiably Verbivorous, Grove & Weidenfeld (New York, NY), 1991.
Tuesday Night Pie, Avon (New York, NY), 1993.
Wednesday Night Match, Avon (New York, NY), 1993.
Saturday Night Toast, Avon (New York, NY), 1993.
Friends for Life, Crown (New York, NY), 1994.
Fitzgerald Did It: The Writer's Guide to Mastering the Screenplay, Penguin (New York, NY), 1999.
Surrender, Dorothy, Scribner (New York, NY), 1999.
The Wife, Scribner (New York, NY), 2003.
The Position, Scribner (New York, NY), 2005.
Contributor to New York Times and Ms. Contributor of short stories to periodicals and anthologies, including Best American Short Stories, 1998; author of screenplays and radio plays.
This Is Your Life was adapted for the 1992 movie This Is My Life, directed by Nora Ephron; The Wife was optioned for a film to be written and directed by Jane Anderson.
"Humor is very important to me in life and work," author Meg Wolitzer revealed in an interview for Barnes and Noble Web site. "I take pleasure from laughing at movies, and crying at books, and sometimes vice versa." Such humor comes in handy, for Wolitzer tackles difficult themes in her novels. Susan Lotempio, writing in the Buffalo News, listed such themes: "Family. Death. Men and women. Relationships. These are the topics that Meg Wolitzer plumbs in her novels." Wolitzer's debut book, Sleepwalking, follows the stressed-out lives of three college women who make their way in the world. Hidden Pictures, from 1986, examines a lesbian relationship. This Is Your Life looks at dysfunction in the family, while Friends for Life is played more for laughs, the story of three girls/women, friends and rivals since they were five, who are now tested in their friendship at age thirty. Family problems, death, and homosexual relationships are mixed in Wolitzer's fifth novel, Surrender, Dorothy, and the frustration of the "better half" in a marriage goes under the Wolitzer lens in The Wife. With her 2004 novel, The Position, Wolitzer details another family whose lives have been forever altered in both comic and serious ways by a bestselling sex manual authored by the parents. Donna Seaman, writing in Booklist, affirmed Wolitzer's own judgment, noting that the author is "a warm, brisk, and extremely funny novelist." Seaman further noted, "Her light touch eschews pretension or false piety, enabling her to write about emotionally charged issues with insight and sophistication." Wolitzer's themes appeal to adult and young adult readers alike; for younger readers she has also penned several light novels.
Novelist at an Early Age
Born in Brooklyn, in 1959, Wolitzer was raised in Syosset, Long Island. In a way, she really never had a chance: writing and reading were pre-ordained. Her mother, Hilma, was an author whose novels were being published when her daughter was in high school and college. Equally interested in human stories was her father, Morton, a psychologist. "Stories," wrote Dan Cryer in Newsday Online, "were a staple in the Wolitzer household." Friday evenings after dinner the entire family went to the local library, with young Wolitzer seeking out the fiction shelves. "It's not surprising," Cryer added, "that Wolitzer's sights were set on writing early on." In both junior high and high school she edited literary magazines, and while other kids were involved in school athletics and social clubs, Wolitzer began making solo trips into New York City to visit museums, see first-run movies, and indulge in foreign restaurants.
Wolitzer attended Smith College from 1977 to 1979 and finished her undergraduate degree at Brown University in 1981. Coming of age in the 1970s, she was greatly affected by Sylvia Plath's novel The Bell Jar, and like Plath, was a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine. Other books that influenced her include The Dubliners by James Joyce, To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, J.D. Salinger's Nine Stories, Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Even as she was in college, Wolitzer was working on her first novel. Her debut novel, Sleepwalking, appeared the year after she graduated from Brown.
Wolitzer's critically acclaimed first novel explores the often cold world of adolescents. By magnifying the rites of passage of three anorexic college girls, Sleepwalking "captures the very real unhappiness of growing up sensitive and misunderstood," wrote Deirdre M. Donahue in the Washington Post Book World. Called "death girls" by their peers because "they talked about death as if it were a country in Europe," these "high-strung, over-enriched, self-conscious" young ladies are preoccupied with suicidal poets. Laura identifies with the whiskeyvoiced Anne Sexton; Naomi dyes her hair blonde in the Sylvia Plath tradition; and Claire, the focus of the novel, surrounds her eyes with kohl, covers her lips with dark gloss, and scents her wrists with ambergris like the fictional Lucy Ascher.
Overcome by the death of a beloved brother, Claire finds in Ascher's poetry the grief and the resentment of adulthood she feels. Claire's acceptance of life and the question of her survival occupy most of Sleepwalking, thus making the novel, Elaine Kendall wrote in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "a remarkably sophisticated inquiry into the nature of such adolescent identity crises." Sara Blackburn noted in the New York Times Book Review that "Wolitzer quickly shows us, with empathy and wit, that these young women are so terrified of maturing that they'll do almost anything to paralyze themselves safely inside the lives of 'their' respective dead poets." "Wolitzer is so intelligent about adolescence," Laurie Stone stated in the Village Voice Literary Supplement. "She depicts it as a plague-ridden country to which children are summarily exiled and where they must wait, hoping for an exit visa or a rescue ship approaching through fog." "Wolitzer's gift," concluded Blackburn, "is being able to sense the tragicomic aspects of both childhood and adulthood and to describe them to us in a voice that is always lucid, insightful and, most of all, tempered with the hard-won wisdom of compassion."
Wolitzer was only twenty-three years old when she published Sleepwalking. Merryl Maleska of the Chicago Tribune Book World, noting the writer's youth,
[Image not available for copyright reasons]
concluded that Sleepwalking is an "astonishingly mature first novel…. The wisdom and sensibility of this novel and of its author—who can know so much at such a young age—leave one genuinely in awe."
Fulfills Expectations of Promising Debut
Wolitzer's 1986 novel, Hidden Pictures, focuses on Laura Giovanni, who illustrates children's books, is married to a lawyer, and has a sensitive, bright boy. Her life in Manhattan seems perfect, but she is not close to her husband. After they go their separate ways, Laura is free to finally discover her lesbian identity, and finds a lover, Jane, to share her life with. Wolitzer examines the difficulties of such a relationship, attempting, as Richard Eder noted in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, to "write about lesbian love, not as part of a separate culture, but trying to fit into mainstream life," and to make it seem as "normal and American as apple pie." Eder, however, was not impressed with this effort, complaining that the author does not give her characters "individuality" and that the book is "full of … authorial chaperoning." A more positive assessment came from Isabel Raphael, reviewing the novel in the London Times. Raphael felt that the book "has a depth, poise, and serenity that belie the author's own youth; for a second novel it is astonishingly confident."
After writing several books for younger readers, Wolitzer returned to adult fiction with the novel This Is Your Life, featuring two adolescent sisters, Opal and Erica, who try to work out a love-hate relationship between themselves and their famously overweight mother, Dottie. Dottie has made her weight into a profession, becoming a famous comedienne by telling fat jokes; however, such fame does not sit well with the daughters. Opal is as strong as her mom, but not overweight, while the older daughter, Erica, is both overweight and deadly serious. Penny Perrick, writing in the Sunday Times, noted that "the lives of Dottie and her daughters change when fat becomes a feminist issue." Perrick went on to comment, "This perceptive book charts the enormous, inescapable importance of personal appearance with a grim lack of pity." Jane DeLynn, reviewing the novel in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, felt that "many of these individual scenes, written in Wolitzer's usual pellucid style, are effective." However, DeLynn also thought that "much of the story is unconvincing and unbelievable." Adapted for a feature film, Wolitzer's novel appeared on the big screen in 1992 as This Is My Life.
Wolitzer's fourth novel, Friends for Life, appeared in 1994. Protagonists Meredith, Lisa, and Ann, have known each other since the fifth grade. Now nearing thirty, they live in Manhattan and meet for lunch regularly. While Meredith is a beautiful and successful television commentator, her friendly enemy Ann works at a publishing house for low wages. Lisa, a medical student, remains the go-between who keeps the three together. Personal crises strike the three and strain their relationship. A contributor for Publishers Weekly praised Wolitzer's "snappy dialogue and nicely captured trendy detail," but also criticized the main characters as "shallow, silly and superficial." Donna Seaman, writing in Booklist, found more to like in this novel, commending scenes "that sparkle with wit."
Of Death and Vengeful Wives
Wolitzer's fifth novel combines several of the themes from her earlier novels, such as family relations and homosexuality, adding the grieving process into the mix. Surrender, Dorothy is an "exquisitely wrought story about the sudden death of a charming 30-year-old woman," according to a Publishes Weekly contributor, who also praised Wolitzer's "seamless prose and light touch" in the book. Writing in the New York Times, Richard Bernstein noted that "Sara Swerdlow is the kind of person you do not expect to die young." When she dies in a traffic accident, her friends and relations are left to try to figure out how to carry on without her. The novel thus details what happens after Sara dies: Sara's mother, lover, and close friends come to understand that there are bonds between them, as well. Bernstein went on to call Wolitzer a "witty and likable
[Image not available for copyright reasons]
writer with a tenderhearted, critical awareness of the lighter-than-air quality of her characters." However, he also found that Wolitzer's novel "incarnates the very weightlessness it describes…. It is a divertimento, not a symphony." Further criticism came from Sylvia Brownrigg in the New York Times Book Review. Brownrigg felt that Wolitzer's "amiability proves something of a liability" in this novel with its "somber theme." The Publishers Weekly contributor, on the other hand, concluded that the author "enchants with wholly realized characters and a sly narrative voice that floats just above the angst and searing grief."
Marital relations move into the spotlight with the 2003 novel The Wife. Joan, forty years married to her novelist husband, Joe, is on a flight with him to Finland, where he will receive a major literary award, when she decides that enough is enough. A onetime writer herself, Joan has put her ambitions on the shelf to support Joe, who was her college English professor. Indeed, the story of their affair, translated to a novel, launched Joe's literary career. But Joe is less than grateful, carrying on with other women and being inattentive to his children by Joan. Now Joan decides that it is her turn: she will live the rest of her life for her, and not for her husband. To accomplish this mission, she threatens to reveal a nasty family secret: she has actually authored the books that have made Joe famous.
Reviewing this sixth title in the New York Review of Books, Claire Dederer found it a "light-stepping, streamlined" work, both a "puzzle and an entertainment," but also a "near heart-breaking document of feminist realpolitik." Other reviewers joined in the praise. A critic for London's Mail on Sunday called it a "smart, sad, funny and subtle novel," while Kera Bolonik, writing in the Washington Post Book World, felt that to dub The Wife Wolitzer's "most ambitious novel to date is an understatement." Bolonik further noted that "this important book introduces another side of a writer we thought we knew: Never before has she written so feverishly, so courageously." For Laurie Stone, reviewing The Wife in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Wolitzer created a "rollicking, perfectly pitched triumph." Stone went on to note that "Wolitzer's unqualified achievement is creating satire that's purged of sentimentality and that seeks to protect nothing." Emma Hagestadt wrote in London's Independent that the novel is both "funny [and] angry," further observing that the author "does a wonderful job of satirizing the East Coast intelligentsia, while gleefully taking the lid off marriage, sexual politics and the creative ego." A contributor for Publishers Weekly similarly commented that "crisp pacing and dry wit carry us headlong into a devastating message about the price of love and fame," andEntertainment Weekly's Nancy Miller called The Wife "an eviscerating and acerbically funny novel."
More family and marital relations are served up in Wolitzer's 2004 novel, The Position. Paul and Roz Mellow co-authored a 1975 sex manual with illustrations of themselves in various intimate positions. The book became a huge hit, on the order of The Joy of Sex. Now several decades later, the Mellow children confront their parents, for they were traumatized as youngsters when they found and read their parents' book. Since then, the parents have divorced, Roz has married the book's illustrator, and now the publisher is about to re-issue their manual. As Nora Seton remarked in the Houston Chronicle, "Paul and Roz have neglected to imagine one remaining position, however: the position they've put their children in." On the eve of publication, the four children reassess the wreckage of their lives. Holly has recurrent drug problems, while Michael battles depression. All the children have troubled relationships and are unable to confront their feelings. Andrea Simakis in the Plain Dealer found that "Wolitzer's dead-on observations about sex, marriage and the family ties that strangle and bind are darkly funny and poignant without ever being mawkish." The critic for Kirkus Reviews claimed that "Wolitzer is best when she stirs the pot of familial and generational tensions." Beth E. Andersen, reviewing the novel for Library Journal, called it a "droll, often poignant tale."
If you enjoy the works of Meg Wolitzer
If you enjoy the works of Meg Wolitzer, you may also want to check out the following books:
Anne Tyler, Breathing Lessons, 1988.
Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones, 2002.
Karen Joy Fowler, The Jane Austen Book Club, 2004.
In her Barnes and Noble Web site interview, Wolitzer concluded with some words of advice to young writers. A professional career in literature "is a protracted process, and … you have to be in it for the long run, and … you have to actually love writing, because the gratifications can be few and far between. But when they do come, these gratifications, they are … gratifying! You need to love the work itself, and to be really excited about writing, and comfortable being alone all day, and trusting your own instincts."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, March 1, 1994, Donna Seaman, review of Friends for Life, p. 1182; May 15, 1999, Ron Kaplan, review of Fitzgerald Did It: The Writer's Guide to Mastering the Screenplay, p. 1662; March 1, 2003, Donna Seaman, review of The Wife, p. 1143; December 15, 2004, Donna Seaman, review of The Position, p. 710.
Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY), September 7, 2004, Susan Lotempio, "Meg Wolitzer, Engaging in Life and Fiction," p. C1.
Chicago Tribune Book World, August 22, 1982, Merryl Maleska, review of Sleepwalking.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), September 25, 2004, Mary Wakefield, review of The Wife.
Entertainment Weekly, April 11, 2003, Nancy Miller, review of The Wife, p. 82.
Houston Chronicle, April 10, 2005, Nora Seton, review of The Position, p. 20.
Independent (London, England), July 30, 2004, Emma Hagestadt, review of The Wife, p. 27.
Kirkus Reviews, January 1, 2003, review of The Wife, p. 26; December 1, 2004, review of The Position, p. 1116.
Library Journal, February 1, 1982; March 1, 2003, Beth Gibbs, review of The Wife, p. 121; December 1, 2004, Beth E. Andersen, review of The Position, p. 106.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 1, 1982, Elaine Kendall, review of Sleepwalking; May 11, 1986, Richard Eder, review of Hidden Pictures, p. 3; October 9, 1988, Jane DeLynn, review of This Is Your Life, p. 8; April 11, 1999, Susan Salter Reynolds, review of Surrender, Dorothy, p. 11; July 27, 2003, Laurie Stone, review of The Wife, p. 11.
Mail on Sunday (London, England), October 3, 2004, review of The Wife, p. 87.
New York Times, April 7, 1999, Richard Bernstein, review of Surrender, Dorothy, p. E9; June 27, 2004, Meg Wolitzer, "Chapter II: The Park Bench," Section 14, p. 3.
New York Times Book Review, August 8, 1982, Sara Blackburn, review of Sleepwalking; March 3, 1985; June 8, 1986, Gloria Naylor, review of Hidden Pictures, p. 12; December 11, 1988, Kit Reed, review of This Is Your Life, p. 9; April 10, 1994, Linda Gray Sexton, review of Friends for Life, p. 716; April 25, 1999, Sylvia Brownrigg, review of Surrender, Dorothy, p. 22; April 20, 2003, Claire Dederer, review of The Wife, p. 11.
Organic Style, April, 2004, Barbara Jones, review of The Wife, p. 22.
People, April 7, 2003, John Freeman, review of The Wife, p. 45; April 4, 2005, Moira Bailey, review of The Position, p. 46.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), March 4, 2005, Andrea Simakis, review of The Position, p. E1.
Publishers Weekly, March 15, 1993, review of Tuesday Night Pie, p. 89; February 14, 1994, review of Friends for Life, p. 81; February 1, 1999, review of Surrender, Dorothy, p. 72; February 3, 2003, review of The Wife, p. 53; November 8, 2004, review of The Position, p. 32.
Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), May 11, 2004, Roger Harris, review of The Wife, p. 5.
Sunday Times (London, England), April 30, 1989, Penny Perrick, review of This Is Your Life.
Times (London, England), November 6, 1986, Isabel Raphael, review of Hidden Pictures.
Times Literary Supplement, April 1, 1983.
Village Voice Literary Supplement, June, 1982, Laurie Stone, review of Sleepwalking.
Washington Post, March 7, 1994, Reeve Lindbergh, review of Friends for Life, p. C2.
Washington Post Book World, June 8, 1982, Deirdre M. Donahue, review of Sleepwalking; April 6, 2003, Kera Bolonik, review of The Wife, p. 6.
Barnes and Noble, http://www.barnesandnoble.com/ (November 18, 2004), "Meet the Authors: Meg Wolitzer."
Bookreporter.com, http://www.bookreporter.com/ (November 18, 2004), Heather Grimshaw, review of The Wife.
Brown Alumni Magazine Online, http://www.brownalumimagazine.com/ (September-October, 2003), Julia Bucci, review of The Wife.
Newsday Online, http://www.newsday.com/ (November 18, 2004), Dan Cryer, "Meg Wolitzer."
Random House, http://www.randomhouse.co.uk/ (November 18, 2004), "Author Interview: Meg Wolitzer."
Romantic Times, http://www.romantictimes.com/ (November 18, 2004), Jill M. Smith, review of Friends for Life.*