Susan Isaacs' life without drama Writer: The Long Island writer leads a comfortable, conventional life that would not pass muster in her murder stories.

July 26, 1996|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Susan Isaacs just misses being a Susan Isaacs' heroine.

Oh, she has the wry humor, the warmth and the pragmatic intelligence readers have come to expect over the span of six best-selling novels, seven as of this month. She lives in Long Island, her favorite setting.

A short, zaftig woman with an appealing face, she even resembles an Isaacs character: Big brown eyes, black curly hair and pale skin that makes you want to rush out and buy a straw hat and moisturizer with an SPF factor of at least 15.

But Isaacs' life lacks the essential ingredient for fiction -- conflict. In fact, the title of her third book, "Almost Paradise," could be used for her autobiography as well. Married 27 years to attorney Elkan Abramowitz, she is the mother of two grown children, a full-time writer and a passionate defender of the First Amendment. It's all very nice, all very interesting -- especially Isaacs' absolutist views on the freedom of speech -- but it's not page-turner material, as she readily concedes.

"I am married to a happy camper," marvels Isaacs, 52. "He's a criminal lawyer who thinks people are inherently good and will befriend him. His father, at 93, is the same way. They wake up saying, 'Ah another day, another chance to have a wonderful time!' "

If they awakened in an Isaacs' novel, chances are they would trip over a corpse on the way to the breakfast table. Although not traditional whodunits, Isaacs' plots have featured dead periodontists ("Compromising Positions"), dead producers ("Magic Hour") and dead philanderers ("After All These Years.")

The body in "Lily White," (HarperCollins, $25) belongs to Bobette Frisch, the latest mark of con man Norman Torkelson, who now stands accused of killing her. The title character -- she understandably chooses to go by her nickname, Lee -- is Norman's attorney.

The first-person narrative is told in the sadder-but-wisecrackier voice familiar to Isaacs' readers. "I was never a virgin," Lee begins. "Okay: In the technical sense, of course I was. But even in my dewy days, I never gazed at the world wide-eyed with wonder."

Right there, Issacs had the ingredients for another best-seller. Charming Norman Torkelson, level-headed Lily White, bubbly prosecutor Holly Nunez, beautiful accomplice Mary Dean. It would have been enough -- Dayenu -- as they probably sang at the Passover dinners of Issacs' Brooklyn youth. Dayenu.

But it wasn't enough for Isaacs, who wanted to tell a second story in a completely different voice. In alternating chapters, "Lily White" also is about Lee's family, the social-climbing Whites (legally changed from Weiss, which had been legally changed from Weissberg). As she follows this thread, Isaacs unravels the perhaps darker mysteries of failed families and lowered expectations.

It was a risk, she says now, but one she felt free to take because she has had the same editor for six of her seven books, Larry Ashmead, and trusts him to tell her if she veers wildly off track. In return, he trusted her to pull it off.

"I have to tell you, if it was many other writers, I would have said, 'Is this working? I want to see 50 pages before you go on.' I knew with Susan it would work, because she had tried so many other things, especially with point of view," Ashmead says in a telephone interview. "She is a dream to work with."

The risk paid off. Isaacs, accustomed to generally good reviews, has garnered some of the best notices of her career. As of this week, "Lily White" has cracked several national and regional best-seller lists.

" 'Lily White' is a big, fat, happy feast of a book her most confident and appealing," mystery writer Jon Katz, another chronicler of murderous suburbs, wrote in the New York Times Book Review on June 30. "Susan Isaacs' real subject here isn't murder or legal thrills, of course, but the drama and suspense of middle-class women's lives. In her rendition, it's white-knuckle stuff."

The film rights have been purchased by Whoopi Goldberg. Beg your pardon? Yes, Whoopi Goldberg, says Isaacs, which really gives the title a tweak. But she's philosophical about Hollywood. Only two of her books have made it to the screen, including "Shining Through," in which the character temperamentally closest to her turned into Melanie Griffith.

"I have such admiration for Whoopi Goldberg as an actress and a general smart person," Isaacs says. "I remain eternally optimistic about everything in the long run. In the short run, will I be eating my kishkas out if it turns out badly? Sure."

A former editor at Seventeen, Isaacs started to write fiction in the mid-'70s, as soon as her younger child, daughter Betsy, started nursery school. But writing a literary novel seemed so grandiose, so presumptuous, that she chose to write a mystery instead.

"Compromising Positions" became a best seller, transcending its genre origins. When British critics declared the book social satire, Isaacs says she was relieved to find out what she was really doing.

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