On Sunday the novelist Alice Hoffman posted on her Twitter feed a nasty and potentially libelous personal attack on the critic Roberta Silman, who had given her new The Story Sisters a tepid review that day in The Boston Globe. Since then, Hoffman reportedly has closed her Twitter account, and the Jacket Copy blog at the Los Angeles Times and others have published the details of controversy, so I won’t rehash it now. But because Silman criticized The Story Sisters for defects similar to those I’ve observed frequently in Hoffman’s books over the past two decades or so, I’m reposting a review of her Skylight Confessions that first appeared on this site on February 15, 2007, under the title “Cracks in Alice Hoffman’s Glass Slipper.”
A Cinderella tale takes a dark and supernatural turn for a heroine who believes in fate
Skylight Confessions: A Novel. By Alice Hoffman. Little, Brown/Back Bay, 262 pp., $24.99.
By Janice Harayda
Brooke Allen wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Skylight Confessions is a kind of fairy tale for college graduates, a book that has “enough intellectual trappings to flatter readers into thinking that they are getting some mental nourishment” but that in essence is a “pure romance novel and nothing more.” I wish I could say it wasn’t true.
But Allen got it right – except that this is a Cinderella story in reverse. Like a romance novel, Skylight Confessions has a plain and virginal heroine – with “no college degree, no talents to speak of” — whose goodness and belief in fate allow her marry “up.” Arlyn Singer even gets her own counterpart to Cinderella’s footwear when her husband inherits a steel-and-glass house in Connecticut known as the Glass Slipper.
Skylight Confessions also requires you to accept the extraordinarily implausible events found in romance novels. Here are some that occur in the first 20 pages: On the night her father dies and leaves her orphaned at the age of 17, Arlie decides that she will marry the first man who walks down her street. She stands on her front porch for three hours until, sure enough, a Yalie with “beautiful pale eyes” stops to ask directions. Though she’s alone in the house, she invites him in. He nods off on the couch, and while he’s sleeping, she takes off all her clothes in the kitchen. When he awakes and finds her naked, they fall into each other’s arms. They stay in bed until he cruelly leaves her three days later with out saying goodbye. However hurt she is by this, Arlie believes “things happen for a reason,” so within two weeks, she sells her house and belongings and shows up unannounced at his dorm at Yale. He doesn’t want to see her, but she persists, and they marry.
The novel doesn’t become more believable after this — it becomes less so as Hoffman rolls out her signature elements of magic and the supernatural. But it does become much darker. Arlie and her children suffer continual disasters, including the arrival of a wicked stepmother, all described in prose that alternates between the overwrought language of melodrama and the banalities of pop psychology. “Was she an enabler?” a nanny wonders as she tries to keep a delinquent child out of jail. And while the novel asserts that such events eventually change some characters, it doesn’t begin to prove it. The glass slipper that shatters in the opening pages of the novel never gets put back together.
Best line: On pearls that were originally “the color of camellias”: “After she’d gone through radiation, the poison from inside her skin had soaked into the pearls; they’d turned black, like pearls from Tahiti, exact opposites of what they should be.”
Worst line: The first sentence typifies the ponderous writing: “She was his first wife, but at the moment when he first saw her she was a seventeen-year-old girl named Arlyn Singer who stood out on the front porch on an evening that seemed suspended in time.” Cross out that “at the moment” and the sentence loses nothing. So why is it there?
Published: January 2007
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.