The Unhappy Homemaker

After her perfect life unravels, Helen of Troy (Neb.) confronts her tragic past.

November/December 1996

Reading time min

The Unhappy Homemaker

Photo: Ray Ronci

"Lee Harvey Oswald might as well have shot my mother through the heart." This sentence, the first of Marly Swick's new novel, Paper Wings (HarperCollins, 1996; $21), illuminates both the narrator--12-year-old Suzanne--and her mother, Helen. What first seems the melodramatic logic of a young girl turns out to be a keen insight. The spirit of hope that John F. Kennedy inspired in the nation had spilled over into Helen's life, prodding her to overcome her "natural state of gloominess." The Kennedy-era Helen strives to become a model wife and mother in the Madison, Wisconsin, of 1963. But when Kennedy is assassinated, her hopes are dashed.

Helen slowly realizes that her dream to be the happy, glamorous homemaker is flawed and naive. Paper Wings becomes the story of a woman who finally rebels against the social conventions she had so eagerly embraced; it is told by the daughter who, loving her, attempts to understand her actions.

In the novel's first section, Kennedy has won the Democratic nomination and the Keller family--Suzanne, her mother, father and older sister, Bonnie--is moving into a "dream house." Suzanne notes the change in her mother: "It was as if she'd left her old self behind in the old house. I wondered if the people who'd moved into the duplex after us ever felt the ghostly presence of a slightly depressed, solitary woman reading piles of library books."

In the new home, all hopes promise to be realized. When Kennedy defeats Nixon, the Kellers join in the national tide of consumerism and domesticity. The precise descriptions--barbecues, cocktail parties, slumber parties, the search for perfect wallpaper--veer close to cliché at times, but they are redeemed by an edge of irony and foreboding. Even Helen's new-found social grace seems precarious, a thing detached from her previous unhappiness.

In a similar way, Swick, '71, deftly develops familiar emotional territory, then subverts it at the last moment, reaping surprising  results. After a political argument disrupts a dinner at Suzanne's grandparents' home, her family returns to its own home and attempts to recover: "My father's voice sounded high and thin. For the first time I could imagine him as a little boy being bullied by his big brothers. My mother got up, and I thought she was going to give him a hug, but she just opened the refrigerator and handed him another beer. 'Let it go,' she said. 'That was then, this is now.' "

What sustains interest in the first part of the novel are these hints of promised crisis--that this perfect, clean world will eventually be revealed as transient and superficial.

The novel's second part delivers on this promise. After Kennedy's assassination, Helen abruptly decides to take Suzanne on a trip to Nebraska. They leave without telling Suzanne's father or sister, and head for Helen's birthplace, Troy. Suzanne watches her mother with curiosity and suspicion; it isn't long before she learns of Helen's tragic past, secrets even Suzanne's father doesn't know.

In the novel's third section, mother and daughter return to Madison, a place where "normality was still considered a virtue"--and where Helen cannot possibly find happiness. She responds by studying Buddhism, often reciting the First Noble Truth: "Life is suffering." Suzanne says that her mother "was there but not there," while her sister and father note that even Jackie Kennedy has recovered enough to enjoy the holidays.

As her parents' marriage moves from separation toward divorce, Suzanne becomes more inquisitive; at one point she even interrogates her mother, hoping that the story of Helen's past will answer present questions. There are no easy solutions for the family, yet a kind of relief follows after one of Helen's smoldering cigarettes starts a fire in the dream house. Damaged, the house loses the appearance of perfection. The naive and misguided hopes it embodied can finally be left behind, making room for new beginnings.

Suzanne's lack of self-pity, coupled with her reluctance to apologize for her mother, is what makes her a convincing narrator. In the book's epilogue, Suzanne leaps seven, then 27 years forward; at the end she is 39, the same age as her mother when Kennedy was assassinated. As Suzanne ages, her insights deepen, and the complexity of Swick's prose reflects this change. When mother and daughter come together as adults, Suzanne sees that her mother's new happiness--unexpected and unconventional--proves that new dreams can be forged from the lessons of past disappointments.

Peter Rock is a Stegner Fellow. His first novel, This Is the Place, will be published next April.

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