The Barnes & Noble Review It's August in New York City, and 30-year-old Sara Swerdlow is headed to Long Island, where she and her best friends aim to while away their days dissecting each other's love lives, careers, and the rundown condition of the cottage they've faithfully rented since college. A graduate student in Japanese studies at Columbia University, Sara is beautiful, charming, and stubbornly single, committed more to her soul mates than to even the idea of marriage. But turning 30 is starting to eat away at that nonchalance, casting self-doubt over a woman who until recently has thought herself "held aloft and shimmering." Back in the cradle of what amounts to no more than a summer shack, she'll sort herself out. She'll reconnect to her best friend, Adam Langer, the "gay Neil Simon," who loves her more than any boyfriend ever has. In August, she will reexamine her ties to her mother, Natalie, who opens every phone conversation with the same password, "Surrender, Dorothy." This summer, Sara will surrender to no one and nothing but her old best friends and this life she's still busy trying to figure out.
Like Dorothy in
The Wizard of OZ , however, Sara has a home to get back to. But it isn't the one she imagines, the one carved out of her time-tested bond to Adam and their other Wesleyan friends, Maddy and Peter and their new baby, Duncan. It isn't even going home to Natalie, who divorced Sara's father before Sara even knew him. Her destination is spelled out in the balmy sky overhead like the wicked witch's trail of smoke over Oz. Sara's fate is to die this summer and in death take onthecentral role in her pals' remaining summer weeks.
In her emotionally fine-tuned and thoughtfully paced new novel,
Surrender, Dorothy , Meg Wolitzer (daughter of author Hilma Wolitzer) weaves a seamless tale that in its entirety reveals how one person can so uniquely bind other people to each other and to themselves. Surrender, Dorothy asks us to give up the idea that we amount to our individual lives alone and nothing more. Surrendering here means to forsake the doubt that meaningful connection E. M. Forster's plea, "Only connect" is impossible. Wolitzer's theme speaks death's words for us: Sara wasn't just anyone when she died, and a brutally quick car crash did not banish her from the living left behind. She was daughter, lover, best friend, and scholar, an important person simply because she worked hard, loved in earnest, and was loved back.
Surrender, Dorothy works the fertile common ground of some other recent popular novels, too. One of the main strands of Sara's charmed life was her devotion to Adam, a theater wunderkind who won over Broadway with his very first play, "Take Us to Your Leader," a comedy about a Jewish family on Mars. Their friendship bestows on both of them the sense of well-being that each imagines to be an attribute of marriage. Adam especially wishes they could add physical attraction to the long list of pluses that marks their bond. Gay male/straight female almost-love stories are in vogue these days, putting Surrender, Dorothy in the same fine company as Stephen McCauley's novel-turned-film The Object of My Affection T . (Expect Surrender, Dorothy to find its way to the screen, too.) And it shares with Ian McEwan's recent novel, Amsterdam , the intriguing idea of rendering a main character solely through other people's imagined and real past relations with her. Just as Molly Lane, the sexy photographer and shared lover of many a prominent Englishman, hovers over the men who vie for the right to her legacy in Amsterdam , Sara Swerdlow is the ghost that prompts each character's actions in , Surrender, Dorothy . Maddy retreats further and further from husband Peter in grief over Sara, complicating an already faltering marriage. Adam sees with striking clarity the faults of his lover and earnest fan, Shawn, an aspiring writer of musicals, as he compares Shawn's social awkwardness to Sara's uncanny ability to make him feel at home in his own skin. Finally, Natalie joins these four mourners in their cottage, trying to view from as many perspectives as possible this angel so swiftly gone from her, the daughter she loved perhaps too much if not too well. The surrogate family that is formed here brings to mind the world of Anne Tyler's novels as well as Ann Beattie's first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter . In a time of splintered marriages and greater social freedom, all these women authors suggest, we find our families where we can.
It seems 30-somethings are every bit as nostalgic as the boomers they're closing in on as the most formidable consumer force, and
Surrender, Dorothy is full of pop culture references to the '70s and '80s. One chapter is titled "Brown-Eyed Girl," the Van Morrison song playing on the radio when Sara's car crashes. The title itself is code to any generation that remembers Judy Garland's "big-girl" longing as its own, while "Surrender, Dorothy" as a phone greeting is Natalie's signal to Sara to give up the goods, tell her everything that happened. The mother-daughter bonding verges on merged identities. Wrapping that theme up in the cultural signature of Judy Garland puts Surrender, Dorothy squarely on the literary map with two other recent works, Oh, Jackie by Maudy Benz and Judy Garland, Ginger Love by Nicole Cooley. In Benz's book, a young girl comes of age sexually at the hands of a lecherous uncle and draws on her passion for Jackie Kennedy to steer her through the treacherous path of adolescence. In Judy Garland, Ginger Love , two sisters take a road trip to their childhood home in order to divine truth from fantasy about their mother and her fanatical obsession with all things Judy.
Surrender, Dorothy's odd cast, from the aging and now daughterless Natalie to the young and floundering Shawn, who barely knew Sara, discovers that with time and effort they, too, can go home again. Sara won't be there physically, but like airplane exhaust trailing the sky, she will remain only a memory away. Elizabeth Haas
Each of Wolitzer's novels (
Friends for Life) has demonstrated this young writer's growing grasp of narrative technique. Here, her seamless prose and light touch animates an exquisitely wrought story about the sudden death of a charming 30-year-old woman. Despite the tragic situation, readers will be intrigued, even delighted, with the unfettered honesty and wry humor pervading the grieving process that Wolitzer describes. Sara Swerdlow is "pretty, but not vacant," smart rather than brilliant, uncomplicated, easy-to-take, beloved; she dies in a car crash at the end of the first chapter, at the onset of a summer vacation with friends. Sara's mother, the heartbreakingly rendered Natalie, is devastated by her only child's death. (Mother and daughter were extremely close; "Surrender, Dorothy," they would say to each other on the phone as a signal to tell all.) She cannot face a funeral or the weeping friends, and arranges a private burial. But it isn't long before Natalie is on her way to the summer house where Sara and her friends always spent the month of August. Already at the beach house are Sara's best friend, Adam, a successful young playwright dubbed "the gay Neil Simon" by the media; his companion, Shawn; and Maddy and Peter, Sara's long-married friends who have just had their first baby. Natalie takes Sara's room and for a few weeks inhabits her daughter's life. She comes to know Adam, acts as a stand-in mother for needy Shawn and finds herself attracted to Peter, setting off a crisis as she inadvertently reveals to Maddy one of Sara's more troubling secrets. Wolitzer enchants with wholly realized characters and a sly narrative voice that floats just above the angst and searing grief of Sara's loved ones. The password phrase "Surrender, Dorothy" takes on a new meaning for the bereft mother in a fitting, radiantly understated conclusion.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Wolitzer, daughter of Hilma, is a prolific writer of novels (
) and children's books; here she announces her themes early on as three Wesleyan alums Peter, Maddy, and Adam react to the sudden death of a beautiful and beloved fourth, Sara. The four had planned to share an August beach house rental. Now, Adam's lover, Shawn, takes her place, the only one not part of the decade-long hermetically sealed group until Sara's death brings them her distraught mother, Natalie. Natalie briefly becomes a mother to the others with varying results, as in most families. Wolitzer's writing is unadorned and direct; the relationships she dissects are neither. Peter and Maddy, relative newlyweds with a baby, attend to their faltering marriage; Adam tries to distinguish love (found with Sara) from sex with Shawn; and Natalie begins to heal with the help of a childhood friend. The title comes from a mother-daughter telephone code. Judith Kicinski, Sarah Lawrence College Library, Bronxville, NY
A weepy account of a young woman's accidental death and its effect on her family and friends, by the author of
Friends for Life. Sara Swerdlow is not what you'd call a slacker, but she's definitely taken her own sweet time in finding herself. Now in her 30s, she is a graduate student at Columbia, pursuing a doctorate in Japanese history that she fears will lead her no closer to a career than she is already. Resolutely single, Sara has attracted a steady procession of unsuitable boyfriends, the most recent being an environmental lawyer named Sloan, who is pleasant, dull, and usually out of town. Her best friend is the very successful playwright Adam Langer ("the gay Neil Simon"), a classmate from Wesleyan. For years now, Sara and Adam and two of their other Wesleyan friends school teacher Peter and lawyer Maddy, a married couple have rented a house on Long Island for a month each summer. This year they continue the tradition, but the familiar rhythm of the summer holiday is shattered when Sara is killed in a car accident during the first week of their stay. Stunned and distraught, the remaining three pass their days in a stupor of grief until Sara's mother Natalie arrives to collect her daughter's personal belongings and allow them to pay their respects. Adam and the others prevail upon Natalie to stay with them for the remainder of the vacation. The four pass their time, then, reminiscing about Sara and to terms with her death. When they all return home at the end of the month, they find that their friendship has in some sense blunted the pain of their loss. Oppressively sentimental, Wolitzer's story quickly feels as cramped as a Hamptons time-share on theFourth of July.