Women want some space of their own

March 13, 1994|By Judith Wynn

What do women want? In "The Longings of Women," novelist/poet Marge Piercy gives a clear, ringing answer: Woman wants some space all her own.

Ask any bag lady -- and Ms. Piercy does. To be accurate, it's Mary Burke, one of three heroines of this lively, densely textured novel, who is almost a bag lady. Mary was once a prosperous suburban housewife. But, as Ms. Piercy shows, the old-fashioned, stay-at-home housewife is one husband away from poverty.

Mary is a 50ish divorcee and one of Boston's homeless people as "Longings" begins. Her life is a succession of semi-legal sleep-overs in the houses that she cleans for a living. Whenever one of her employers goes out of town, Mary lets herself in with her cleaning-lady key for a few precious nights of peace and shelter. That failing, she sleeps in deserted church basements or dozes off, sitting up, in the airport terminal. Institutionalized homeless shelters would destroy the independent image that Mary cultivates to fool employers.

Mary's most baffling employer is Leila Landsman, a Cambridge professor. Leila puts up with her husband's many affairs even though she pays most of the household bills. Mary can't figure it. Leila is writing a book about a young woman -- Becky Burgess -- who has murdered her husband for the insurance money. This, Mary understands: "Thinking of doing violence to someone who was hurting you could be soothing in a minor way."

The political, class-conscious author has returned from the cyberpunk realms of her last novel -- the sci-fi dystopia fantasy "He, She & It" -- to the nitty-gritty, present-day struggle between the haves and the have-nots. "The Longings of Women" recalls Piercy's 1973 feminist hit, "Small Changes." As a feminist cautionary tale, though, its message is somewhat dated now that the economic realities of contemporary family life have put full-time housewifery out of the reach of the average family- and career-juggling American woman.

What makes "Longings" such arresting reading is the clever way Ms. Piercy links Mary and Leila to Becky, the fictitious counterpart of New Hampshire's true-crime villain, Pamela Smart. (Smart drew a life sentence in 1991 for persuading her teen-age boyfriend to murder her husband.) Ms. Piercy skillfully digs beneath the cheap-thrills surface of the boy-seducing vamp to the blue-collar murderer's yearnings for respect and a nicer, more spacious home than her overburdened parents were able to provide.

Ms. Piercy provides some hot and heavy sex scenes, but she stresses that Becky's real love affair is with the pretty condo that comes with her unhappy marriage. "I won't lie down and let you shovel me off the porch," Becky silently promises her scornful, philandering husband. "This is war."

A solid career and a few loyal friends are Leila's hedges against the misfortunes that hobble Mary and Becky. Dismayed by her own collapsing marriage, Leila considers love "a long and tedious delusion." Love eventually finds Leila, although it's more provisional than the victorious unions of such earlier Piercy novels as "Fly Away Home" and "Summer People."

Ms. Piercy shrewdly traces her three protagonists' small, crucial changes and their ambivalent triumphs. Leila notes Becky's growing self-possession in jail: "Perhaps murder had improved her self-confidence." Mary gets a new life, too. Although she appears to be setting herself up for the same old letdowns, it's also possible that the women-centered options created by quiet feminists such as Leila will make a difference after all.

Ms. Piercy is not an elegant writer; at times awkward sentences must be reread before they make sense. Interesting, swift-moving plots and careful social observation are her main strengths. Although she has been criticized for writing didactic potboilers, "The Longings of Women" gives its characters plenty of space to play out their truest instincts, right or wrong.

C7 Ms. Wynn is a writer who lives in Somerville, Mass.

Title: "The Longings of Women"

Author: Marge Piercy

Publisher: Fawcett

Length, price: 416 pages, $22

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