Cheever, Susan 1943–
CHEEVER, Susan 1943–
Born July 31, 1943, in New York, NY; daughter of John (an author) and Mary (a poet and teacher) Cheever; married Robert Cowley (an editor), 1967 (divorced); married Calvin Tomkins II (a writer) 1981 (divorced); married Warren James Hinckle III, 1989; children: (second marriage) Sarah Liley; (third marriage) Warren James Hinckle IV. Education: Brown University, B.A., 1965.
Taught English at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School and the Scarborough School, 1965-69; affiliated with Queen magazine, London, England, 1969-70; Tarrytown Daily News, Tarrytown, NY, reporter, 1971-72; Newsweek, New York, NY, 1974-78, began as religion editor, became lifestyle editor; Hofstra University, Hampstead, NY, former instructor, beginning 1980; Bennington College, Bennington, VT, currently instructor in M.F.A. program; Yale University, New Haven, MA, 1999-2000; New School, New York, 2004—; has also taught at Marymount Manhattan College, New York, NY. Member, Corporation of Yaddo.
Authors Guild (member of council), Authors League of America, PEN American Center.
Guggenheim fellowship, 1983; National Book Critics Circle Award nomination in biography/autobiography, 1984, and Lawrence L. Winship Book Award, Boston Globe, 1986, both for Home before Dark.
Looking for Work, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1980.
A Handsome Man, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1981.
The Cage, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1982.
Doctors and Women, C.N. Potter (New York, NY), 1987.
Elizabeth Cole, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1989.
Home before Dark (biography), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1984.
Treetops: A Family Memoir, Bantam (New York, NY), 1991.
A Woman's Life: The Story of an Ordinary American and Her Extraordinary Generation, Morrow (New York, NY), 1994.
Note Found in a Bottle: My Life as a Drinker, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1999.
As Good as I Could Be: A Memoir about Raising Wonderful Children in Difficult Times, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2001.
My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson, His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2004.
American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2006.
Contributor to books, including Writers Talk about the First Year, edited and with an introduction by Christina Baker Kline, Hyperion (New York, NY); and The Real Truth about Midlife, edited by Deborah Deford, 1998. Contributor to periodicals, including Architectural Digest, Harper's Bazaar, New Choices for Retirement, New Yorker, and New York Times Book Review. Author of weekly column for Newsday.
Susan Cheever, the daughter of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Cheever, is an acclaimed writer in her own right. Though she began her career as a journalist, she later turned to fiction and biography. Her novels frequently explore the moral dilemmas of contemporary women who are dissatisfied with their marriages and careers, and who subsequently search for more fulfillment in their lives. She is also the author of several biographies, including one on her father.
In her first novel, Looking for Work, Cheever "paints the cheery saga of a spoiled, upper-middle-class brat who marries the wrong guy … has an affair, and finally gets ready for a steady job," related Elizabeth Fox-Genovese in the Antioch Review. The story of Salley Gardens "is the one that so many writers regard as the story of our time," commented a reviewer for the Atlantic, "the demise of a marriage, told by a young wife who mistakenly assumed that she should and could find meaning in her life by helping her husband live his." In following her heroine's life from marriage to divorce to her eventual landing of a job on the staff of Newsweek, Cheever has created a novel that "belongs to a tradition of realism which sets itself the task of illuminating the way we all live now," observed Cheryl Rivers in Commonweal.
The view of contemporary America offered in Looking for Work is, in the words of New York Times Book Review contributor Robert Kiely, "very much like a certain kind of Hollywood film; brisk, bouncy, sharply focused, filled with primary colors and abrupt transitions. … [The] novel is easy to read. Nothing drags, nothing lingers, no one mopes." But this case, argued Newsweek contributor Jean Strouse, detracts from the overall impact of the book. "By merely telling us how Salley feels instead of giving those feelings dramatic life," wrote Strouse, "Cheever has created something less than a novel." New York Times book reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt offered a similar assessment: Looking for Work "is not really much of a story. … Nor has Miss Cheever found a metaphor to tie her narrative together." All the same, Lehmann-Haupt did admit that Cheever "shows considerable promise. She strikes a note of amusing rue that manages to avoid self-pity."
Though some critics faulted Looking for Work for its story, Cheever earned praise for its technical features. For example, according to Susan Kennedy in the Times Literary Supplement, "Cheever enlivens [the] well-trodden literary topography [of New York, Europe, and San Francisco] with some good descriptive writing; indeed, it is her unobtrusive technical assurance, her respect for the just use of words, that keeps the novel together." Rivers, too, felt that Cheever's inventive writing raises this novel above the level of cliche: "She plays with style, abruptly changing pace, mood, and vision. She is capable of intimate, wry commentary and of showy descriptions of events." Beyond this, continued the reviewer, "Cheever's very real accomplishment in Looking for Work is the vividness with which she has observed the familiar plight of her heroine and the gentle affection with which she draws her cast of characters. She has avoided turning her characters into parodies; her belief in her characters allows us to believe in them and to care about their predicaments." Cheever succeeds in the end in showing the reader that "love, marriage, and even sex no longer have the redemptive qualities so widely advertised in popular culture, common sense, and our own psyches," concluded Rivers.
Cheever's second novel, A Handsome Man, focuses on a vacation in Ireland, shared by Hannah Bart, a divorcee in her thirties, her older lover, Sam, his teenage son, Travis, and Hannah's younger brother, Jake. "The work depends almost entirely upon the shifting dynamics between Hannah, Sam, and Travis," commented Susan Currier in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook. "Cheever moves the reader smoothly from one character's mind and feelings to another's, though Hannah's remains the dominant perspective." In the opinion of Washington Post contributor Michele Slung, Cheever captures the interest of her readers by revealing the young woman's character: "Hannah is a real woman come alive on these pages. Both her doubts and her wisecracks ring true." The reviewer noted, however, that "Sam and Travis added to Hannah make for a human equation that has less verisimilitude."
The novel "is meant as a study in the forms of selfishness afflicting lovers, father and son, the young and the not-so-young," observed Judith Chernaik in the Times Literary Supplement. Yet, in the end, concluded the reviewer, it "is marred by a pervading slickness, a tendency to slip into woman's-magazine banality." As Joyce Shaffer put it in a New Republic review: "It is like a faded color photograph: a brief moment of reality is accurately reproduced, but there is no movement or excitement." Slung attributed the novel's shortcomings to its having to compete with its own setting. Though Slung said of Cheever's prose, "it is not always strong enough to fight off the scene-stealing proclivities of things Irish," she maintained, "when [her prose] is good … [it] is seductive and tightly phrased."
"No youthful protagonist in search of either lover or work animates [The Cage, Cheever's third novel]," observed Currier. "It is a more tightly structured book than the first two, with a darker vision of a middle-aged couple trapped in mutual disappointment and destruction." The cage referred to in the book's title was once used to house the menagerie kept by Judith Bristol's late father on the grounds of his New Hampshire estate. Restoring this long-neglected pen has become a sort of therapy for Julia's husband, Billy, during the couple's summer vacation at the estate. The cage also plays a central part in the couple's final confrontation. This story of conflict simmering beneath the calm exterior of suburban America is reminiscent of the world of the author's father, John Cheever, a point on which Richard Eder commented in his Los Angeles Times Book Review article: "Susan Cheever has chosen deliberately, with some courage and less prudence, to start in her father's territory and walk her own wilder track out of it."
Cheever's detailed account of the uneventful surface features of suburban life is at the center of much of the criticism devoted to this book. "One of the problems with The Cage—which seems not so much a novel as an extended story or even a television script …—is that it is mostly surface, embroidered with glittery and often repetitive detail," contended Sheila Ballantyne in the New York Times Book Review. On the other hand, New Statesman contributor Bill Greenwell found those same features one of the novel's primary virtues. "What Cheever achieves with startling clarity is a surface naturalism, with a powerful eye for telling, insignificant detail and a feeling for the petty emotions of jealousy and depression." These mundane events are the pieces that build slowly toward the book's climax, according to the critic. "The novel's conclusion is masterly. As the final pages turn, the reader recalls a succession of brilliant images, sewn into the subtext, by which we have been prepared for the ending. Cheever is exceptionally talented," concluded Greenwell, "this novel superbly compulsive."
Although Cheever's first three novels all draw upon her experiences, none is as personal as her fourth novel, Doctors and Women. Its central character, Kate, like the author, has lost a father to cancer. But Kate's fictional life is affected by a number of other complications: her mother is hospitalized with cancer, she is unhappy in her marriage, and she is "fascinated by the charismatic power doctors seem to exercise over the lives of their patients," explained Susan Kenney in the New York Times Book Review. Her story offers, in the words of Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Linsey Abrams, "a coming-of-age novel, all the more interesting because it documents that second coming of age, in one's 30s, when one chooses the life one is actually living over the fantasy lives that, like fiction, run parallel to it."
The novel had its genesis in the events of her father's illness. She was struggling to make sense of his battle with cancer when she became intrigued with the doctors attending to his and other cancer patients' day-today crises. She decided to learn more about these men, researching their professional duties and their personal lives. The information she gathered, intended originally for a nonfiction work, became instead the basis for this novel. "It is clear that Ms. Cheever has not only done her research, but also been there; her accounts of medical procedure and hospital ambience are authentic right down to the contents of IV bags and bulletin boards," declared Kenney. "Written in graceful prose, these scenes have the power and authority we associate with the best nonfiction."
In fact, it is in the arena of nonfiction that Cheever has enjoyed her greatest success, both in examining her personal concerns and in making a name for herself. After John Cheever's death from cancer, the younger Cheever decided to edit the log she was keeping of her thoughts. Her original intent was to distill this written mourning into a short memoir of the man she knew—father and author. In the process, she discovered the details of her father's pain, which he had tried to deal with through the use of humor. Her first reaction was to give up the memoir entirely at that point, but she believed the best person to tackle the project was herself, so she decided to carry on. The resulting book, Home before Dark, according to Brigitte Weeks in the Washington Post Book World, "is much more than Susan Cheever's memoir of her famous author father: it is a portrait of the artist as a young man, a middle-aged man, an old man, a sick man. It is, in fact, one of the most moving and intimate books I have read in years." In looking back, Cheever follows her family's history from her grandfather's downfall during the Depression through her father's rise from struggling writer in the close quarters of the big city to respected author surrounded by the comforts of a suburban estate. This family history provides the backdrop for her close examination of John Cheever, the man, the author, and the father.
"The book seems to omit few unpleasant, even sordid details in its depiction of John Cheever as a tortured father, writer and man," suggested John Blades in theChicago Tribune, "telling of his turbulent marriage, his long and frustrating struggle to make a living as a writer, his alcoholism, his paternal inadequacies, his aristocratic pretensions and his confused sexual life." Though faulted by a number of reviewers for these revelations—what was considered by some a daughter's betrayal of her father—Cheever also received commendations for her sensitive handling of a subject so close to home. Weeks, for one, remarked that "the wonder of this book is the astonishing combination of dispassion and compassion with which Susan Cheever portrays her father." Eliot Fremont-Smith, writing in the Village Voice, described Cheever's memoir in the following words: "She is not intrusive, only truthful; so this intimate, disturbing book is an act of mourning and forgiveness, of ultimate respect." Fremont-Smith took exception to some of the criticism of the volume. "This is a deeply responsible and touching book," he concluded. "Those who find it shameful or lacking in respect know only the price of courage, not its necessity."
Beyond the insights it offers into the father's work, Home before Dark provides evidence of the daughter's personal and professional development. In this book, wrote Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times, "we get to know a man we scarcely dreamed existed behind the elegant facade. It is a painful discovery, but it is to Miss Cheever's credit that she persevered. Not only has she finally identified her father, but in doing so she has faced up to the challenge of identifying herself." Los Angeles Times Book Review critic Charles Champlin concluded: "If the reader is touched, it is not by the mannered style but by the candor and insight that have gone before. There will be full-dress biographies of Cheever and his work in due course. All will be the more knowing for his daughter's paining portrait."
A Woman's Life: The Story of an Ordinary American and Her Extraordinary Generation was Cheever's attempt to remove the name and the notoriety from her own life. The woman in question, known as Linda Green in the quasi-biography, is indeed a composite of the women who were raised in the 1950s and 1960s. A high school cheerleader, Green rejected her traditional upbringing by turning to a hippie lifestyle of drugs and communal living with her young husband, experimented with open marriage, and wandered Europe. Weathering divorce and remarriage to a domineering, conservative man, at forty-seven years of age she now juggles a job as a teacher with her roles as a suburban homemaker raising two children. Although she complained that the novel "lapse[s] into cliché and … a missionary feminism," Marie Arana-Ward praised A Woman's Life in the Washington Post Book World as "ultimately valuable for its essential truth about human relationships and for its rare grasp of the texture of the American woman's lot." While complimenting the work for its "finely tuned observation of human foibles," New York Times Book Review contributor Kathleen Norris questioned whether Green is "an Everywoman. Ms Cheever's keen novelist's eye allows us a fascinating glimpse into one individual life, but her book is also a cautionary tale about the dangers of making broad generalizations about our own experience or that of a generation."
In Note Found in a Bottle: My Life as a Drinker, Cheever again examines her own life, this time from the perspective of a recovering alcoholic. Having been raised by heavy drinkers—and having been encouraged to drink herself as a teen—Cheever never questioned the role alcohol was playing in her life as she aged. After her father joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and after her own children arrived, Cheever faced painful realities about her behavior. A Publishers Weekly reviewer called Note Found in a Bottle "a powerful story written in precise, emotionally intense prose" that "will be of invaluable assistance and support to those who are traveling the chilling road that seduced, then nearly killed Susan Cheever."
In the wake of sobriety, Cheever became appalled by her former self-centered and callous treatment of others. To quote Sherry Stripling in the Seattle Times, Cheever's "precise, fast-reading memoir is brutally honest. She's seeing herself for the first time and she doesn't come out pretty. … But it is interesting. Cheever has her father's eye for detail. Looking back, she sees straight on—and makes no excuses—for how she hazily bounced from one remarkable scene to the next." In her New York Times Book Review assessment of the memoir, Sarah Payne Stuart expressed some reservations. "As Cheever ticks off disaster after disaster—which she attributes to drinking, or, occasionally, to the bond of true love—she loses her larger context and writes from the more limited field of her own inner feelings, soggy ground for any writer," Stuart explained. "… There is a certain bravery to her brutal frankness; at the same time, she lacks a basic self-awareness." Stuart nevertheless concluded: "It's when Cheever takes control, as she does in the earlier parts of this memoir, that her writing has true resonance." Harper's Bazaar correspondent Carolyn See wrote: "The realm [Cheever] evokes here may look at first like paradise, but by the time you finish these beautifully imagined pages, you'll be convinced it was hell." See maintained that, with Note Found in a Bottle, Cheever makes the reader see "the shimmering, layered reality behind any moralizing. She's had an amazing life, in places most of us will never be, with people we can only dream about meeting. She's written nine books, and she's a better writer—harder, more honest—than her father was."
On another personal note, Cheever penned As Good as I Could Be: A Memoir about Raising Wonderful Children in Difficult Times. She credits having children as a strong motivating force to quit drinking, commenting on her Web site that "they opened my heart and made me want a different kind of life and made me not want to die." Calling this a "candid" look at the author's struggles to be a good parent, Susan Tekulve wrote in her Book assessment that the work "lacks the warmth and self-effacing humor" of a similar book, Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott. Cheever seems more distant in her book, Tekulve felt, and thus the reader does not learn a great deal from her failures and successes. John D. Gartner, who is a psychologist, explained in his National Review article about the book that he felt Cheever was far too indulgent as a parent. He added that Cheever makes the same mistake as many other parents: "On the one hand, they believe that children are little adults, fully capable of reasoned judgments about their behavior. On the other, they believe that children are simply big infants, incapable of tolerating even the most minor frustration." Other critics similarly commented that As Good as I Could Be should not be referred to by those seeking parenting tips, yet a Publishers Weekly writer added that, "at its best, it is pleasurable."
The subject of alcoholism crops up again in My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson, His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous. Here, Cheever explores the life of the cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), frankly portraying Wilson as a seriously flawed man who was known to experiment with LSD and indulge in extramarital affairs. She was motivated to write the biography, as she explained on her Web site, because she "was amazed to find that although there had been some books about Wilson including his own and his wife Lois' autobiographies, there had never been a proper, fully documented biography." Cheever explores all facets of Wilson's life: from his trying childhood, to his introduction to alcohol and meeting with AA cofounder Bob Smith, to his later years after he turned over management of AA to others and turned to drugs. "Her own experiences as a recovering alcoholic … deepen the author's insight into AA's philosophy and Wilson's struggles," observed a Kirkus Reviews writer. A Publishers Weekly critic praised the book because "Cheever's portrayal of Wilson's story never resorts to hagiography and doesn't dodge the controversies that other biographers have exploited, such as Wilson's womanizing and LSD use." Lloyd Steffen, writing for the Christian Century, concluded that My Name Is Bill is a "compelling, well-researched and beautifully written—even poetic—biography."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Cheever, Susan, Home before Dark, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1984.
Cheever, Susan, Treetops: A Family Memoir, Bantam (New York, NY), 1991.
Cheever, Susan, Note Found in a Bottle: My Life as a Drinker, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1999.
Cheever, Susan, As Good as I Could Be: A Memoir about Raising Wonderful Children in Difficult Times, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2001.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 18, 1981, Volume 48, 1988.
Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1982, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1983.
America, November 26, 1994, Kelly Cherry, review of A Woman's Life: The Story of an Ordinary American and Her Extraordinary Generation, p. 22.
American Book Review, January-February, 2000, Patricia Kelly-Gallen, "Hunted by the Black Dog," pp. 28-29.
Antioch Review, spring, 1980, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, review of Looking for Work.
Atlantic, January, 1980, review of Looking for Work.
Book, May, 2001, Susan Tekulve, review of As Good as I Could Be, p. 75.
Booklist, October 1, 1997, Mary Carroll, review of The Real Truth about Midlife, p. 279.
Chicago Tribune, October 21, 1984, John Blades, review of Home before Dark.
Christian Century, May 18, 2004, Lloyd Steffen, review of My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson: His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 40.
Commonweal, July 4, 1980, Cheryl Rivers, review of Looking for Work.
Entertainment Weekly, January 22, 1999, review of Note Found in a Bottle, p. 98.
Harper's Bazaar, January, 1999, Carolyn See, review of Note Found in a Bottle, p. 64.
Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 2003, review of My Name Is Bill, p. 1433.
Library Journal, November 15, 1998, Nancy Patterson Shires, review of Note Found in a Bottle, p. 75.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 3, 1982, Richard Eder, review of The Cage; October 24, 1984, Charles Champlin, review of Home before Dark, p. 1; May 17, 1987, Linsey Abrams, review of Doctors and Women.
Mainichi Daily News, September 18, 1999, review of Note Found in a Bottle.
National Review, February 22, 1999, Mark Cunningham, "Vice: I Drink, Therefore …," p. 52; June 25, 2001, John D. Gartner, "Let 'Em Eat Cake," review of As Good as I Could Be.
New Republic, May 16, 1981, Joyce Shaffer, review of A Handsome Man.
New Statesman, February 4, 1983, Bill Greenwell, review of The Cage.
Newsweek, January 14, 1980, Jean Strouse, review of Looking for Work.
New York Times, December 17, 1979, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of Looking for Work, p. C17; October 11, 1984, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of Home before Dark, p. C23.
New York Times Book Review, January 6, 1980, Robert Kiely, review of Looking for Work; October 3, 1982, Sheila Ballantyne, review of The Cage; June 28, 1987, Susan Kenney, review of Doctors and Women, p. 16; July 17, 1994, Kathleen Norris, review of A Woman's Life, pp. 10-11; January 10, 1999, Sarah Payne Stuart, "A Woman under the Influence."
Publishers Weekly, February 24, 1997, review of Writers Talk about the First Year, p. 70; November 16, 1998, review of Note Found in a Bottle, p. 59; April 30, 2001, review of As Good as I Could Be, p. 71; December 8, 2003, review of My Name Is Bill, p. 55.
Seattle Times, January 27, 1999, Sherry Stripling, "Uncorking the Secrets behind a Drinking Life."
Times Literary Supplement, February 22, 1980, Susan Kennedy, review of Looking for Work; September 4, 1981, Judith Chernaik, review of A Handsome Man.
Village Voice, October 30, 1984, Eliot Fremont-Smith, review of Home before Dark.
Washington Post, July 19, 1981, Michele Slung, review of A Handsome Man.
Washington Post Book World, October 7, 1984, Brigitte Weeks, review of Home before Dark, p. 1; June 26, 1994, Marie Arana-Ward, review of A Woman's Life, pp. 1, 8.
Susan Cheever Home Page,http://www.susancheever.com (August 28, 2006).