Small Changes: A Novel

Small Changes: A Novel

by Marge Piercy


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for delivery by Wednesday, February 2


In the choices two different women make, we discover the lives of all women . . . 

“[Marge] Piercy has proved herself a sensitive champion of women's issues.”—The Charlotte Observer

Small Changes is the explosive novel of women struggling to make their places in a man's world. Set against the early days of the feminist movement, it tells of two women and the choices they must face.

Intelligent, sensual Miriam Berg trades her doctorate for a marriage and security, only to find herself hungry for a life of her own—but terrified of losing her husband.

Shy, frightened Beth ran away from the very life Miriam seeks, ran away to a new world of different ideas, and a different kind of love—the love of another woman. . . .

Related collections and offers

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780449000939
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/23/1997
Edition description: REISSUE
Pages: 544
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.25(d)

About the Author

Marge Piercy is the author of nineteen poetry collections, a memoir, seventeen novels, and a book of short stories. Her work has been translated into nineteen languages, and she has won many honors, including the Golden Rose, the oldest poetry award in the country. She lives on Cape Cod with her husband, Ira Wood, the novelist, memoirist, community radio interviewer, and essayist. She has given readings, lectures, or workshops at more than five hundred venues in the States and abroad.

Read an Excerpt

Small Changes

A Novel

By Marge Piercy


Copyright © 1973 Marge Piercy
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-3337-4


The Happiest Day of a Woman's Life

Beth was looking in the mirror of her mother's vanity. The mirror had wings that opened and shut. When she was little she used to like to pull them together around her into a cave of mirrors with only a slit of light. It isn't me, isn't me. Well, who else would it be, stupid? Isn't anyone except Bride: a dress wearing a girl.

Beth could not help seeing herself in the mirror: could never call up a glamorous image as her younger sister Nancy could. Nancy was sulking in the bathroom because her best friend Trudy had called her a dishwater blond. Like Beth, Nancy had naturally curly, almost kinky light brown hair. They were the little ones in the family. Just yesterday she had picked off the floor a piece of paper with gum stuck in it written in Nancy's fancy new backhand: Nancy Phail is a petite vivacious blond with loads of personality. Nancy could look in the same mirror and see faces from those teen-age magazines she brooded over. But Beth saw Beth lost in a vast dress. She felt like a wedding cake: they would come and slice her and take her home in white boxes to sleep on under their pillows.

With their married sister Marie's help, Nancy had written a description for the paper and mailed it in, though they never printed that except for people like, oh, executives' daughters from the G.E. plant where her father worked at the gate. "Schiffli embroidery and ribbons dip softly over an organza skirt and bodice, with sheer daintily puffed sleeves," Nancy had written. "The train comes away." That meant the thing that dragged could be taken off, with a little timely help.

"What are you frowning for? Mooning around, just as if it was any Saturday. Now let your sister Marie use the mirror, don't be standing there making faces." Her mother clucked and nudged and peered at her with that familiar worried look. "Oh, if you aren't covered with freckles the size of pennies!"

Jim and she had gone to Verona Beach on Lake Oneida last Sunday and now she was freckled on her face and hands and arms and even her back, though nobody could see through the yards of white fencing. Only her thin arms and hair stuck out, her hair not anything like its fluffy silly self but turned into a stiff coiled mass that smelled chemical and had sitting on it pearls and lace and imitation flowers rising from what looked like the doilies her Grandma Phail used to keep pinned to the arms of her overstuffed mohair couch.

Everything was to be pink and white. Her mother, nudging her from the mirror, was wearing a rustly old rose dress that was too tight. It was left from Marie's wedding, but Mother said nobody would remember what she wore four years ago — though it was clear she had put on weight. Marie's dress was in a color called cerise and she was matron of honor. Marie was one of the big Phails, like Dad and their brother Dick, big-boned and now filled out wide in the hips to balance her shoulders. Nancy was bridesmaid in pale pink and so was Beth's girl friend Dolores in a dress the color of salmon from a can. There had been some fussing because Dolores was Catholic, but Beth insisted on her. It was the only thing she had insisted on. Dolores and Beth were not as close any more, both spending so much time with their boy friends and both having to work after school their senior year, but there had been many times — especially in junior high school — when Beth felt nobody in the whole world cared for her except Dolores.

Dolores had not liked the dresses that Marie and Nancy picked out, and they had fought for a whole week. Dolores had ended up taking hers home to let out the bodice, which meant she made it come out lower so her breasts showed some. She always said, if you had it you might as well flaunt it. Salmon was not Dolores' best color, but she looked more definite than anybody else. Dolores had taken over from Mother to work on Marie's hair, all the while flirting with herself in the mirror over Marie's broad shoulders. She made Beth smile for the first time since waking up.

Why did Marie look strange? Beth realized she had not seen her dressed up since — when? Her own wedding? Mrs. MacRae's funeral? Marie had lived upstairs since Mrs. MacRae died and poor Mr. MacRae moved to his sister's house. Gene had been out of work, long, too long. They had lost their house. Marie's baby Lucille had been put down on the bed, where the everyday clothes people had worn over were piled. Lucille was spitting up on the cotton dresses and pants. Joey was out in the yard with Dick's kids dressed up in their little suits and the last time she had seen them they were rolling in the grass playing Indians.

Nancy flung out of the bathroom. "Look at me! I'm a wreck! My hair didn't come out right. And how can I wear such stupid clunky earrings?" Nancy and Dolores were jockeying at the three-sided mirror. At the window she started to look out but Marie yanked her back. "It's bad luck to be seen on your wedding day."

"You could just wrap me like a package." To give her away. It was funny how they celebrated her going off with Jim, when for a long time Mother had not let her see him and she had used to meet him secretly after work. His brother raced stock cars and Jimbo liked to hang around the cars and her mother thought he had a bad reputation. Last month her mother had been worried and kept shaking her head and saying, "If this is what you really want." Of course she wanted to marry Jim. She could hardly believe that she was really his girl. From one day to the next, she was always scared of losing him.

Weddings and funerals. All through Beth's childhood Mrs. MacRae had lived upstairs. She was plump, with flesh like mashed potatoes, put on make-up at home in the evenings and did not wear housedresses like Mother and now Marie did. She had a pink naked-looking dog Honeybun. Her mother had told Marie that Mrs. MacRae wasn't really a woman, for she had had her organs removed. That was why she didn't have children like everybody else. The MacRaes had a little more money than their neighbors, and Mrs. MacRae was always inviting the other women in for Pot and Pan Parties. She would have games and demonstrate products and give door prizes and they would buy pans. Mrs. MacRae also gave parties for cosmetics and wigs and shoes. Those were the only times women in the neighborhood got together. Beth had loved to tag along. Her mother had bottles of apricot throat cream in the hall closet she would never remember until they dried up. But an imitation party was better than no party at all.

"This is the happiest day of your life!" Mother came and pinched her arm below the puffed sleeve. "The happiest day!"

The day was already hot with flies buzzing at the pane but she felt cold and strange. Finally she ran to the bathroom and waited till her Uncle Bob came out. It was impossible to sit on the toilet in the dress. It took ten minutes to get into position. When she came back to the bedroom, Marie started fussing that she was getting the dress wrinkled.

"No, you can't sit down!" her mother snapped. All the funny curls danced. Usually her mother had her thin gray-brown hair pulled back in a hairnet. She always wore a hairnet, Beth didn't know why. Now her hair was skinned into tight rings like something you might use to clean a pot. "Don't you want things nice, on your own day? That dress cost enough, so you might as well enjoy it while you can!" Mother gave her a poke. They never did embrace much. She had not thought about that before she hung around with Dolores, whose family was always kissing and yelling. People in Beth's family turned things in and carried them off to brood on. When her parents argued, usually over money because there was never enough, they argued in low voices that would begin hissing and rise with anger like a saw cutting into wood and then compress again so that the children would not hear, although of course the children always heard.

"You'll get plenty of time to rest later. In the car I mean!" Dolores giggled and hugged her around what were usually her ribs.

"Don't muss the dress!" Mother warned. She had been lost in a fret of anxiety for days, seeing disaster in each broken glass.

"Why, you'll get to lie down flat for days and days on your honeymoon — I mean in the sun!" Dolores said singsong.

She made herself push her lips into a pretend smile. Getting dressed up meant being uncomfortable. Putting on extra underwear that bound you and shoes that pinched or clopped and dresses in which you could not move. Putting stuff on your face and watching the wind did not get in your hair and make it look as usual. Trying to appear as little like Beth as could be arranged. She felt embarrassed, whether it was for a party or the senior prom with Jim, as if she were caught out in the open trying to be someone else. Getting dressed up meant everything about her was saying LOOK AT ME when she would just as soon nobody would bother.

Mostly people didn't. She was small, like Nancy and Mother, although Mother by this time was so wide she wasn't exactly invisible. Mother was round and had trouble with her legs, bursitis. But Beth was five feet one and weighed a hundred pounds exactly and Jim's sweet name for her was Little Girl. Of course she could look in the family album and see photographs of her mother looking just as slight. Her mother would refuse to eat potatoes at supper because she was watching her weight, and then in midmorning she would sit down to a snack of coffee with cream and sugar and a danish and at three o'clock have coffee with cream and sugar and Sara Lee cake. A sweet tooth never filled, a hunger for sugar greater than a hunger for food. In repose the expression on Mother's face was a worried sadness, a look of things missed and wasted, a look of bills coming home to roost and nothing gained.

Beth had always felt the wrong size. She was convinced she had been bred to be miniature, like a toy poodle or a dwarf peach tree, in the world where everybody else was twice her size and ready to push through her like a revolving door, ready to step on her and overlook her and keep her from seeing whatever the rest of the crowd was yelling about. In chairs her feet never quite touched the floor. If she sat forward, then her back was without support. Shelves were out of her reach and she was always groping impossibly for straps in buses and clawing at luggage racks and she never could shut windows. Now her littleness was swallowed by a dress standing as if on a padded hanger.

"You can still see her freckles, Mom." Nancy was squinting in Beth's face. So they got towels from the bathroom to protect The Dress and painted on more make-up slathered over the old make-up. They told her to close her eyes and open her eyes and make faces and be still. When they finished, her face looked like rough plaster but they all had to admit, you could still see her freckles.

"Well, it's because she has such a fair skin that she freckles," Dolores said protectively.

"Now that's true." Mother rubbed idly at the rose taffeta where an old stain faintly showed. "She bruises easily too. Why, you lay a finger on her and it shows. She's the sensitive one."

"And hickeys," Dolores whispered, giving her shoulders a squeeze, because when Beth had been seeing Jim on the sly she had used to worry that her father would see the marks on her neck. "The headpiece is coming untacked!" Dolores wailed. "Mrs. Phail, look, it's coming off of her!"

"It's almost one and I have so much to do, and you keep undoing what I've done already. That's a thirty-five-dollar headpiece, Bethie, so hold your head up proud and stop dancing around like a flea on a hot griddle."

"Mom, don't worry!" The sour waves of anxiety coming off her. "Mom, what does it matter? It will be all right." Beth tried to smile.

"Yeah, take it easy," Marie said with a sigh. She had been looking in the hand mirror with a puzzled smile at the way Dolores had done her hair. It did look nice. "It's too hot to get so excited. Beth'll do fine."

"Did you ever see a girl fidget so? Your family's giving you a real wedding, and don't you forget it," Mother said. "We haven't cut any corners. This is no hole in the wall at the courthouse or in the front room to save on the trimmings. You're getting married in church with flowers and bridesmaids and your father rented a hall for afterward with real caterers. And I want you to remember this, Nancy Rose Phail — that's how it's supposed to be. Just like we're doing for your sister Bethie, if you're a good girl and do right by your parents, your parents do right by you."

Of course Dick's wife Elinor had come swishing in and Mother had been talking as much to dig at Elinor as to warn Nancy. "Where's the blooming bride?" Elinor cried out as if she hadn't heard. "Why, doesn't she look good enough to eat! What's wrong with the veil? Is it supposed to stick straight out that way?"

"Oh, she's jiggling around so much she's twitched it loose again. How many pins can we put in her? It stays or it doesn't. I wash my hands of it." Mother made a hand-washing gesture.

"Poor lamb, she's all excited. Well, you got quite a day for it, happy's the bride the sun shines on, they say. What are you going to do with those three blenders? What a shame."

"She's going to take them back and get an electric knife and a bathroom scales!" Mother's warning voice rose to a whine. Elinor wanted to help herself, and Beth would just as soon she did. All that heap of stuff to write letters for, strange silver thingies and glasses that cost too much to use. It had been going on for weeks. "Your Aunt Emma could have done fairer than that! Why, I saw that vase on sale downtown for five ninety-five and I'm going to let her know she can't pull the wool over my eyes!"

"What's that big china contraption Jim's sister-in-law gave you? She told me it's an antique soup tureen, but I'll tell you, cross my heart and hope to die, I think it's a big old chamber pot!"

"Isn't it an eyesore?" Mother forgave Elinor for saying that because she already didn't like Jim's relatives. Dad made a practice of liking his in-laws, on principle, because they were family and you always put up with family. Mother made a practice of disliking in-laws on principle, because they were only pretending to be family and they were making comparisons and out to take advantage.

The day was sunny and hot. Beth was sweating in her gloves by the time they left for church. Mother had spread out a sheet in the back seat of the car and they sat on it very stiff, Dad driving with Nancy and Mother in front, and Marie and Dolores on either side of her in back. She had not seen Jim since yesterday. It was strange that she was not permitted to talk to him, to know how his morning had been. He was supposed to be the one to hold her when she felt frightened, she was supposed to be the one to understand and make him feel all right. "Why can't men and women see each other before a wedding?"

"Maybe so the groom won't take a last look at the bride and change his mind, ha-ha," her dad said. He was wearing a gray hat that smelled of dry cleaning and she could not see his face.

The scent of the mock oranges in the church was overpowering. Across the street kids were playing softball. It was crowded in the little room with everyone babbling and Aunt Susie bawling. Someone had been drinking. Gin crept under the mock orange and grass clippings from the church lawn and the smell of camphor heavy from a closet where vestments were stored. An invitation lay on the table and she picked it up. "Mr. and Mrs. Charles L. Phail are pleased ... their daughter Elizabeth Ann to James Hayes Walker ... June 22, 1968." She saw herself start down the aisle and trip on her train and go rolling headfirst over and over to end up sprawled on her back, dress piled over her head at the altar. She could not make the picture go away. Again and again she saw herself rolling like a snowball of stiff organza over and over down the aisle to end up sprawled knees apart, legs spread, and dress up over her head in rape position.

Nancy would love to slip into this gown. In Dad's and Uncle Bob's jokes at the family dinner, there had been such a sense of relief at only one more girl to marry off, and that the pretty one.


Excerpted from Small Changes by Marge Piercy. Copyright © 1973 Marge Piercy. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


I The Book of Beth,
1 The Happiest Day of a Woman's Life,
2 Marriage Is a Matter of Give and Take,
3 Welcome to the Sexual Revolution,
4 Come Live with Me and Be My Love,
5 Women's Soft Voices on a Summer Day,
II The Book of Miriam,
6 You Ain't Pretty So You Might as Well Be Smart,
7 Is Sex More Fun Than Pinochle?,
8 Mothers and Daughters,
9 To Each According to Her Need,
10 Just off the Freedom Trail (Phil),
11 The Competition,
12 Love Is a Woman's Whole Existence,
13 Stills from a Year,
14 You Got to Feel It Spontaneously,
15 The Champion versus the Hustler,
16 You Are What You Eat,
17 Of Fog and Snow (Phil),
III Both in Turn,
18 That Which God Has Joined,
19 A Little Strange and a Little Familiar,
20 The Rhythms of Two Households,
21 I'm Good and I'll Prove It,
22 In the Fullness of Time,
23 Motherhood Is a Woman's Creativity,
24 Out of the Closet and into the Frying Pan,
25 How to Fall Is as Important as How to Get Up,
26 Mohammed Comes to the Mountain and Finds It Stone,
27 Like a Great Door Closing Suddenly,
28 Caught in the Net,
29 Everything Comes to the Woman Who Doesn't Wait for Anything,
30 Plot of the Wild Chicken Breaking Through,
31 What Shines,
32 Another Desperate Soprano (Helen),
About the Author,

Customer Reviews