One-Minute Book Reviews

October 30, 2006

Before Bridget Jones, There Was Gail Parent’s Sheila Levine

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:57 pm
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A dark satire of pre-Sex and the City mating rituals in New York that still towers over most books in its class

Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York. Overlook, 223 pp., $13.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Long before Bridget Jones stepped on a scale, Sheila Levine embodied a certain kind of single woman – smart, funny, overweight, and desperate to get married. A generation of women embraced her as a spiritual sister when she appeared in Gail Parent’s 1972 bestseller, Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York, and took her story as an antidote to the terminal perkiness of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. So it was good news when, a couple of years ago, Overlook Press reprinted this blistering satire of mating rituals in pre-Sex and the City New York.

Like Bridget Jones, Sheila Levine is smart enough to see the absurdity of the games she plays with men but not smart enough to transcend them, which lends a comic poignancy to her husband-hunting. But her story is darker and more complex than Bridget’s. It begins with Sheila contemplating suicide because a New York shopkeeper had claimed falsely that his milkshakes had only 77 calories, an incident based on a real-life event. The rest of the story turns on whether she will kill herself, and it’s about as a bleak a premise as a novel can have. In some ways, this book has more in common Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play, ’night, Mother, than with Bridget Jones’s Diary.

But Parent keeps the darkness from becoming oppressive with a fast-paced plot and well-observed details of the age when a Saturday-night party meant women in sheaths and pearls, men in black horn rims, and “Peter, Paul and Mary on the hi-fi.” And more than three decades after its publication, it still towers over most books in its class, partly because Parent doesn’t ridicule her heroine for her focus on her weight and marriage. Instead she places the blame for those obsessions where they belong – on a culture that still sends women the message that all their problems could be solved by a Glamour makeover.

Best line: “I’m committing suicide. DO YOU WANT TO LIVE IN A WORLD WHERE A MAN LIES ABOUT CALORIES?”

Worst line. Parent, a screenwriter, rarely misses the mark. But the ethnic humor in this book reflects the sensibilities of its era. For example, when her roommate doesn’t return one night during a vacation in Rome, Sheila thinks: “Linda was obviously being held by the Mafia, who wanted her to dead an Italian-Jewish-American whorehouse.”

Recommended if … you like dark comedy or wonder how people had sex when women wore panty girdles instead of thongs.

Published: 1972 (first edition), 2004 (Overlook reprint). The first edition, still available in many libraries and elsewhere, has a cover by the legendary graphic designer Milton Glazer, more famous for his snake-headed psychedelic Bob Dylan poster. The novel was also made into a 1975 movie. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0073698/

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

 

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