Monday, September 11, 2006

Susan Isaacs' Compromising Positions

The Mainly Mysteries Book Club met again last Thursday night to discuss Compromising Positions by Susan Isaacs (photo left) writes Jeannine. This takes place in a New York suburban upper class neighborhood in the mid-1970s. In sort of an early Desperate Housewives, Judith Singer is a housewife who gave up graduate school to become a wife and mother. When her dentist is murdered and her neighbor a prime suspect, Judith discovers just how bored she has been by the overwhelming interest she discovers in working her own “investigation.” And like Desperate Housewives, there’s a great deal more going on in Judith’s neighborhood than anyone suspects. Her dentist was a very bad boy, romancing all the influential wives in town (with pictures), with a pornography business on the side and maybe even a Mafia connection. Lots of people wanted him dead. Oh my, who could it be? Judith starts asking questions and draws the attention of both the killer and a very attractive police detective. Her husband is being a bit of a jerk, and everyone else is fooling around, so why shouldn’t she? And she does (with the detective, not the killer). They also share information, eventually leading to – um – the end of the book. See, no real spoilers there.

We had a very large group and a very wide range of reactions. Most agreed that it was a lousy mystery, but quite a few enjoyed it as good social satire. Most were conflicted, liking some parts and disliking others. Judith was not generally well liked, but most found her interesting. Her husband was viewed as horrible, and by one as “robot man.” To me he seemed just as unhappy as Judith and HE didn’t fool around. But that’s just me. Most of the other characters were more caricatures than people, and the only one anyone seemed to like was the neighbor Marilyn, the one woman in the entire town who turned the dentist down (Judith was never propositioned, for which she seemed rather disappointed) and made all her own bread.

Those who disliked the book disliked it a lot. Really really disliked it. "A" read off her review of the book which she found absolutely revolting and nothing more than pornography. Or worse. Her review was absolutely priceless, sheer perfection in its pointedness. "A" is never one to mince words, for which we treasure her. (And if we can get a copy of her review, we’ll add it to the blog). She had an especially big problem with Prince (the dentist’s dog), and how it took Prince, and another person on the carpet in the killer’s own home to set the killer over the edge. No, you really don’t want to know any more than that. Trust me on this. Or, as one clever boy mentioned, “it’s obvious the younger generation is going to the dogs.” This brought great laughter and groans. And no, you still don’t want to know.

This was Susan Isaacs’s first novel, and it was generally decided that many of the problems with the story were due to this. The author appeared to start down several different avenues in the story, but then couldn’t seem to decide which to stick with. A plot point that seemed wasted for everyone is how Dr. Fleckstein seemed to target women with influential husbands as if planning for blackmail, but never seemed to make use of it. Another member said she wasn’t paying that much attention to how it all tied (or didn’t tie) together, and didn’t care, it was just too much fun. Many admired the “crackling wit” and humor, and didn’t feel a loss of suspense, reading it for the humor rather than the mystery or puzzle.

This led to the discussion of a movie that was made of the novel in 1985, starring Susan Sarandon, Raul Julia (the detective) and Joe Montegna (the dentist), and with a screenplay written by the author. Many plot points were changed – Judith had been a reporter before and was trying to get back in the field, her husband was even more obnoxious this time around, and, while there was nice chemistry between Judith and the detective, there was no affair. Oh, and Prince was there too. Poor Prince. The people who saw the movie thought the story seemed to hang together better, causing us to wonder if the author saw some of the weak points in her original novel and sought to correct them in her screenplay.

The novel was published in 1978 and came with some of the trappings of the time. Judith had learned her police procedure from “Dragnet to Kojak.” No CSI to check out the letters on her refrigerator. One of the female police officers had a beautifully coifed “massive Afro.” It all comes back. No one in our large group, however, had any experience in that kind of suburban neighborhood. Several of us had lived in the suburbs, but the working class suburbs, the “other side of town,” and remember more the “country club mentality” presented in the book, a social class, rather than an actual neighborhood.

We used the 1970s suburban theme for our display. We had some photos from the tract homes of the period, complete with harvest gold appliances and orange shag carpet. A bright apron was laid out beside the black rotary dial phone and a Fleetwood Mac album (you remember those big black disks). Popular books of the period were spread around (Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Love Story, Roots, Thorn Birds, Passages…). And some absolutely charming dental tools, complete with tooth. Ew.

Refreshments were traditional canapés – crackers and cheese and wieners (I had been hoping for Cheeze Wiz, but oh well). We’re sorry but Twinkies were too pricey for our budget, but we lucked out - "W" brought her wonderful lemon bars instead – recipe attached.

There were a couple of book recommendations before we closed. Those who hated Compromising Positions suggested anything by Fannie Flagg instead. Everyone loves Fannie Flagg. Her most recent, Can’t wait to get to Heaven was a special joy. Another member recommended the audio book of Maeve Binchy’s Tara Road – she said the reader was especially adept at both American and Irish accents. Which led to another member recommending anything read by Simon Prebble.