Susan Isaacs Wrote Books About Feminist, Flawed Heroines Before It Was Cool. Now What?

I arrive 15 minutes early to the Upper West Side restaurant where I am supposed to meet Susan Isaacs to talk about her new novel, Takes One To Know One. This only because I had spent the previous half hour loitering at a nearby coffee shop, uncharacteristically nervous. Biting my nails nervous. Extra shot of espresso nervous.

Isaacs, a novelist who has published 16 books, isn’t the most famous author I’ve interviewed, but she is the one who provokes the most agita. The morning of our interview, I think about why Isaacs’ work matters so much to me—and how bereft I feel when I would talk to other women, other writers my age or younger, who don’t get it. Reading her felt as if one of my relatives had written novels, the tone so familiar to this suburban Canadian Jewish girl, yet foreign enough with their American (and sometimes, international) settings.

I’ve met and interviewed writing heroes before. Almost all have been gracious and kind. Sue Grafton, author of the Kinsey Millhone private detective series, blurbed both of the crime fiction anthologies I edited at a time when she’d all but stopped endorsing new books. (It was an honor to deliver this tribute at Grafton’s 2018 memorial service, too.) Dorothy Salisbury Davis shared priceless memories of her life and work, and the other crime writers she knew during her mid-century heyday, during an afternoon visit a year before her death in 2014. And the several occasions I’ve met and interviewed Mary Higgins Clark, the “Queen of Suspense,” who at 92 years old still shows younger writers how it’s done.

None of them made me as nervous as Susan Isaacs does.

Isaacs’ debut novel, Compromising Positions, was an instant hit upon publication in 1978 and something of a unicorn in suspense fiction, thanks to the perspective of bored Long Island housewife-turned-amateur sleuth Judith Singer. Her voice rings out in a rich, alto, D-minor key (Relaying a description of the murder victim, a Lothario periodontist with a penchant for illicit photographs of his lovers: “The man had a body that made her want to learn how to carve marble.”)

Even with second-wave feminism in full swing by 1978, the fact that the book’s heroine was 34 is notable. In an era in which 24 was deemed “over the hill,” Singer would have been deep into middle age. Women like her were supposed to be invisible. But here was this dynamic woman casting off the protests of her friends and her condescending, fat-shaming husband to play sleuth.

“Susan knows Long Island like Charles Dickens knew London or like Raymond Chandler knew Los Angeles,” Jennifer Weiner, who has long acknowledged the influence of Isaacs upon her novels—Goodnight Nobody is outright homage to Compromising Positions—told me by email. “Her narrators are unforgettable characters who feel like smarter, wiser, versions of you and your best friends, and she gives them happy endings that don’t feel cloying or unobtainable.”

Novels like Compromising Positions—commercial fiction, made more Jewish—didn’t get published four decades ago. Novels like this paved the way for Isaacs to publish whatever she damn well wanted, whether social comedies mixing marriage and politics (Close Relations), sweeping multigenerational sagas (Almost Paradise) feminist King Lear rewrites (The Goldberg Variations), or Jewish-inflected spy stories (Shining Through, much, much better than the Melanie Griffith movie). Her novels featured women who were funny and flawed, brave in deed if not in thought, without being “feisty” or “spunky.” I wasn’t the only reader who loved Isaacs’ novels. Each of them hit the New York Times bestseller list.

“There used to be this condescension towards domestic fiction,” Meg Wolitzer, author of The Female Persuasion, who has known Isaacs since she was a sophomore in college, tells me. “I’m not sure we’ve fully left that time, depending on who is reading and criticizing. But I believe strongly there is something really worthwhile to say about the lives of characters who might not be empowered. Susan has a way of calling things out without being polemical.”

Wolitzer’s mother, the novelist Hilma Wolitzer, whose four-decade old friendship with Isaacs began when they both joined a fiction workshop for women writers, is equally admiring: “Her books are delicious, but they are not light. They have a lot of texture and layers.”

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