Calculated Risks

Reviewed by Lise Funderburg

New York Newsday
August 8, 1999

Before Lisa Zeidner settles into lunch at Cuvee Notre Dame, a restaurant in Philadelphia’s trendy Fairmount section, she has to have her picture taken. The photographer seats her at the bar, then at a table next to an exposed-brick wall. There’s a slight tension in the air, which Zeidner tries to diffuse by reassuring him she’s not trying to be difficult– it’s just that her face doesn’t photograph well, Indeed, she says later, the person who took her book jacket photo said he could shoot her all day and still not get good smile.

“He explained that none of my normal expression are available on camera,” she reports without rancor.

In person, Zeidner, small and birdlike in a simple, sleeveless dress that suits the punishingly hot day, displays a full emotional range. Today, enthusiasm for her latest novel, Layover, predominates. She’s driven over ‘from the nearby New Jersey suburb where she lives with her architect husband and 8-year-old son to talk about the book-a witty and contemplative tale of a woman who copes with the accidental death of her child in an unconventional way.

Layover has generated the highly coveted buzz that publishers hope for. While Zeidner’s two books of poetry and three previous novels have all been seriously considered this book s reception exceeds all pre-publication expectations. There’s film-rights interest, paperback rights are about to be auctioned off and the hardcover is headed for its fourth printing (only five weeks after publication). As such, it could be considered the breakthrough novel for this 44-year-old writer, and she seems game to consider every aspect of its reception, negative or positive. For starters, there’s the cover – a grainy photo of a naked woman sitting on the edge of a bed.

“The brouhaha over the cover has been surprising,” Zeidner says, quick to defend what she describes as a fairly tasteful art nude. “It’s not a Hustler shot.”

Inside its covers, the book – which trails grief-stricken Claire Newbold as she goes on the lam from her husband, her job and, essentially her life-has been taken to task for Newbold’s sexual encounters with a teenager she meets, and later, his father. Zeidner says she’s used to vitriol in reviews, especially after her 1983 novel Alexandra Freed, which she describes as a “comedy about a date rape.”

Most of the reader comments on the online bookseller, for example, have been favorable, but not all, some accuse Newbold of using grief as an excuse for promiscuity.

“Certainly, the novel posits that sex can be emotionally curate and restorative, and I suppose that isn’t a fundamentalist principle,” Zeidner says. But she still finds the focus on sex disproportionate, especially since only two sex acts actually occur. “Of course, they’re very specific,” she concedes wryly.

More noteworthy, she thinks, is the way the book celebrates “grown-up sex,” with a middle-aged heroine who’s in charge of her own sexuality. But the wider society still sees “the range of acceptable behavior for women to be shockingly narrow.”

So is the range of acceptable writing, she asserts.

“It’s hard to get taken seriously as a female novelist. Men’s fiction is more free to take linguistic risks. I feel fortunate that I actually seem to be getting people to notice this is a writerly book. It’s not just a how-to article about marriage and parenthood.”

Despite its success, Zeidner contends the book can only do so well. “I still think there are only 20,000 readers of literary fiction in the world.” Nonetheless, she seems committed to broadening that audience. She was misquoted, she says, in a trade magazine that claimed she’d set out to write a commercial novel. “Accessible,” she corrects. “I see this as a novel with a lot of ideas in it, but I didn’t want it to read like a philosophy course. I wanted to make sure the surface was light and jumpy and exciting enough that it could lure a reader in. I’ve lost patience with books that don’t make the effort to do that. If I want to work without pleasure, I can read Proust.”

Zeidner’s already at work on two more novels and finishing “Serial Monogamy,” a collection of short stories. She manages to write on top of her responsibilities as director of the English graduate program at Rutgers University, where she has taught for the last 20 years. Lest she should get carried away with her own success, her son serves as a grounding force. Not only does he not know that a boy dies in the book, he doesn’t seem to care.

“All he knows,” she says with a laugh, “is that a lot of things I have to do with this book make me unavailable to take him to the pool. He’s really not very interested in it. In fact, after a snit fit I threw about literary matters, he said, ‘So you got a lousy book report. So who cares?”‘