The Strangers Among Us: Three Novels by Elizabeth Brundage

The Doctor’s Wife (Plume, 2005)
Somebody Else’s Daughter (Plume, 2009)
A Stranger Like You (Plume, 2011)

There are many things to praise about Elizabeth Brundage’s novels. She tackles controversial topics innovatively through the interplay of highly drawn-out characters; she is in command of the language––the reader is never jerked out of the story by a wrong word or confusing image; and her plotting keeps the reader’s interest to the last paragraph. But there is also much to discuss in these novels.

Using fiction for political ends is a risky business. In The Doctor’s Wife, Brundage attacks fundamentalist anti-abortionists. In A Stranger Like You, she goes after Hollywood’s treatment of women. Her agenda in Somebody Else’s Daughter is less in your face; hence in my opinion, it’s the best of the three.

Each of Brundage’s stories is told through multiple characters. In The Doctor’s Wife, the main characters are Annie Knowles, who is married to Michael, a doctor who decides to spend the little free time he has working in an abortion clinic run by a former lover, Simon Haas, an artist who seduces Annie, and Simon’s wife Lydia, the most complex character in the story. Lydia is Marilyn Monroe had she run away with an artist instead of been discovered by Hollywood. A natural beauty, Lydia falls in with a group of fundamentalists who kidnap Michael with the intent of killing him in retribution for his murder of fetuses.

I have several problems with Lydia, starting with the idea that she could run off at age 14. Lydia had been living in Fulton County in upstate New York, with her father who was dying of cancer. Simon Haas, a 36-year old art student, discovers her on a trip searching for subjects to paint. When Lydia’s father dies, Haas has no trouble spiriting her off to New York City, as if the officials at her school and the county department of social services would ignore her disappearance. In a conflicting, but necessary twist Haas continues to pay the electric bill on her family’s dilapidated house, which means public agencies could have tracked him down.

Haas becomes a famous artist by virtue of his nude paintings of Lydia. His fame eventually gets him a teaching job at a Catholic college in Albany, New York––the college where Annie, an iconoclastic journalist who has written an article on late-term abortion that got the attention of the anti-abortion community, teaches English. Haas is a rake and Lydia, who feels guilty about Haas having arranged an abortion after she’d been impregnated by a community agency employee before he met her, appears unable to become pregnant. That is the backdrop to Haas’ seduction of Annie and Lydia’s participation in the attack on Dr. Knowles.

In A Stranger Like You, Brundage rakes Hollywood for its treatment of women. The story is told through two characters, Hedda Chase, a Jewish Ivy-leaguer who becomes a producer at a large Hollywood studio and Hugh Waters, a would-be screen writer whose previously purchased script is killed by Chase.

Chase––the heroine of A Stranger Like You––bucks the system by remaining single, despite fighting loneliness, and by producing a movie that tells the story of a woman who is stoned to death in Iraq on the dubious grounds that she spent several days trapped with an American soldier in a bomb ruin. Waters is the wild card––an outsider who fits into the alienated male-dominated Hollywood culture despite or maybe because of being a sociopath.

Readers who are sympathetic to Brundage’s portrait of Hollywood may not quail at her Hugh Waters villain. Anyone living in contemporary America is likely to accept Waters as yet another example of the dangerous male murderer––the stranger next door. Unlike his New Jersey insurance company colleagues, Waters hopes to be something more than a 9 to 5 desk jockey. Isn’t that a good thing? Yet, when his dreams are interrupted, we’re asked to believe he has no trouble becoming a cold-blooded killer.

Somebody Else’s Daughter is the most successful of Brundage’s three novels in large part because her treatment of social issues––drugs, pornography, sexual deviancy, adultery, et al––don’t overwhelm her characters as the issue of abortion overwhelms the characters in The Doctor’s Wife and the treatment of women by Hollywood overwhelms A Stranger Like You.

My biggest problem with Somebody Else’s Daughter is the 10-page unlabeled initial section of the book which some readers in my book club didn’t realize until I had pointed it out was a letter written by one of the main characters at the moment of giving up his daughter for adoption. Brundage uses the technique of confusing the reader with content at the beginning of all three books. Although Lydia’s internal dialogue at the beginning of The Doctor’s Wife actually occurs after the story ends, the foreshadowing is largely lost. A Stranger Like You begins with a page of Hollywood story themes: “Greed leads to destruction; lust leads to obsession; love leads to happiness…” repeated over an over to the bottom of the page. This criticism of the formulaic approach to movie making is both obscure and off-putting.

When a writer has an ulterior motive to writing a novel, it is hard to avoid creating stereotypical characters. To Brundage’s credit her villains are not stick figures, although the sadistic murderer in Somebody Else’s Daughter comes close. Brundage allows her bias against those she doesn’t agree with turn them into villains. In the first two books, rural white fundamentalists are cruel and criminal. Brundage takes her disdain for fundamentalists one step beyond historical evidence, suggesting a group could act in unison to commit a murder. Individuals have done terrible things, but I don’t know of a situation where a minister has convinced a group to engage in such acts.

In the final analysis this reader didn’t buy either Lydia Haas or Hugh Waters. In Lydia’s case it was her decision to save Michael Knowles while killing a homeless man in his stead that didn’t work for me. Waters’ unformulated plan to show Chase that the ending to his script was plausible requires the reader to accept the idea that his man has become unglued by the canceling of his movie contract. Both stretches are essential and neither worked for me. I give her credit, however, for trying and for coming close.

Also worth noting is Brundage’s treatment of her protagonists. There are no heroes in The Doctor’s Wife. Annie gives herself to Simon Haas when neglected by her doctor husband, who puts his family last on his list of priorities. Somebody Else’s Daughter has several good guys while in A Stranger Like Me, Hedda is clearly the hero––as it is she who in the end dispatches the villain.

Finally, Brundage deserves praise for her treatment of Jews and Judaism. In Somebody Else’s Daughter she describes a character’s moral conversion during a Yom Kippur service and in A Stranger Like You, Hedda Chase is forced to come to terms with her having abandoned her upbringing. Both treatments are presented in a sensitive and compelling manner.

There is much to praise in these novels. Even where she comes up short, Brundage pushes against the boundaries of modern culture, asking her characters to confront the implications of their decisions and behavior. Let’s see whom she goes after next.

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