OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Novel looks at three women, three generations

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Susan Jackson Rodgers

“Reading these stories, I felt at times like a teenage boy peering into the girls’ locker room and seeing far more than I was prepared to absorb. But there is no looking away. The young, old, and middle-aged women who make up her intimate and honest world are, one and all, fearful and fascinating to behold.” Pete Hautman, Fiction Writer

The short story has been Susan Jackson Rodgers’ long-time fiction territory. Her 2004 collection, The Trouble With You Is, drew enthusiastic reviews and her stories have been appearing regularly since 1986 in literary journals and magazines.

Now she is venturing in a new direction with a novel in progress, Is This a Good Time? The book may yet turn out to be linked short stories, she says, though its structure is comfortable for a writer accustomed to working in short form.

The book is organized into three parts, each focusing on a different character. “This three-part structure is appealing to me for several reasons. First, I am a short story writer venturing into the terrain of the novel for only the second time—the first attempt is, wisely, tucked away in a drawer. I like the way short stories focus on single moments in characters’ lives, and admire novels that use an episodic rather than linear structure.”

Is This a Good Time? (the question a main character asks whenever she telephones her daughter or granddaughter) chronicles three generations of one family, focusing on three women: Frances, her daughter Caroline, and Caroline’s daughter Gwen.

“My goal is not to write a comprehensive history of this fictional family, but to offer a glimpse into these women’s lives,” said Rodgers, a Center Research Fellow and English faculty member at OSU. “Each section will cover a brief period of time—a week or less—during a particular year.”

As described by Rodgers in her fellowship proposal: “First we meet Frances, an American living in Cuba during World War II, the wife of a banker and mother of two children. Like Virginia Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway, Frances’s main objective is to prepare for a dinner party—but food rations, a marital crisis, and other obstacles plague her, even as she strives to keep the surfaces of her life unmarred by imperfections.

“In the novel’s second section, we see Frances’s daughter Caroline, in her late thirties, returning to the acting career she put on hold years before. Caroline’s husband has left her—taken off with a twenty-year-old in a VW van (it’s 1971).

“Caroline has returned to the summer stock theater where she worked as a young woman. Nothing in her life is turning out the way she planned, and as opening night approaches, she struggles to overcome her anxiety and despair.

“In the novel’s third and last section, Gwen, Caroline’s daughter, belongs to the generation of women for whom opportunities are many and expectations high. But Gwen is overwhelmed by her duties as mother, career woman, and caretaker of Frances. When her father, from whom she is estranged, comes to spend a week with her, Gwen’s perspective on her family history shifts.”

In each section of the novel, a war is either coming to a close (World War II, Vietnam) or just beginning (Iraq). Rodgers said that, in many ways, her entire artistic life has been aimed toward writing this novel.

“The story of these three women is the culmination of the themes and subjects I have been exploring in my work for over two decades: women’s interior lives, marriage and divorce, family life, intimacy, motherhood, loss.”