Compromising Positions by Susan Isaacs

I shrugged my shoulders. “You know, whips are understandable. Leather, chains, all that stuff. But I can’t comprehend bananas.”

Illness and an inability to concentrate forced me to set aside heavier reads, and I reached instead for a book that required very little of me: Compromising Positions by Susan Isaacs. If you’re wondering about my choice, the book was made into a rather funny 1985 film starring Susan Sarandon.

Compromising Positions is set in the snobby set of Long Island– a community in which a prestigious address is as important as membership at the local country club, and housebound wives are involved in a smattering of ‘good works,’ and child-rearing while keeping their homes immaculate for their commuting professional husbands. The protagonist is Judith Singer, a bored thirty-something wife and mother of two with too much time on her hands. When local periodontist, and as it turns out playboy, Dr. Bruce Fleckstein is murdered by single stab to the base of the skull, Judith’s curiosity leads to a few innocent questions. The innocent questions lead to a full-blown amateur investigation or relentless nosiness, depending on your point of view.

When news of Dr Fleckstein’s murder is announced it rocks the quiet, dull little community. On one level, everyone has a difficult time accepting that a wealthy professional was murdered in broad daylight in his office. But even more than that it seems that naughty Bruce couldn’t keep his hands off his patients. Rumours of a pornography ring, secret photographs and even a mafia connection begin to emerge.

Just why Judith is so curious about Dr. Fleckstein’s murder is every bit as interesting as the crime itself. It seems that the libidinous Bruce propositioned everyone except Judith, and part of her curiosity about the murder lurks in her ego and the fact she feels personally insulted that she was not propositioned:

Men like Fleckstein, who wear gold chains around their necks and have manicures, tend to ignore me. I seem to attract hypercerebral types, chubby astrophysicists in wire-rimmed glasses who tell me I have a first-rate mind while staring at my breasts.

Judith finds it difficult to credit the sheer numbers that the late Long Island Don Juan racked up, and soon it becomes easier to keep track of who he didn’t have an affair with. Judith discovers that Dr. Fleckstein had a very definite M.O.–hitting on the wives of wealthy men, often at parties but sometimes while they sat in the dental chair. He followed up with a phone call, a string of ridiculous compliments, lunch and then a quick trip to the Tudor Rose Motor Inn for assignations. Oddly enough, Fleckstein passed over a few of the community’s gorgeous women and instead preyed on many unattractive, downright boring wives–the type you’d never suspect of a little afternoon hanky-panky.

Obviously with that many affairs under his jockstrap, just who would have wanted to kill Fleckstein cannot be easily narrowed down. There’s Bruce’s long-term squeeze–his jealous nurse Lorna Lewis and his icy wife, Norma. Then add to the list of possible suspects dozens of pissed off husbands and sobbing discarded mistresses.

Judith is pulled into the murder case when one of her neighbours asks for her help, but this is just the excuse she was waiting for. While Judith spies and noses around, a main focus here becomes Judith’s marriage to Bob. Bob’s ever-increasing late nights at work allow Judith freedom for sleuthing, but since Bob doesn’t approve of Judith expressing even mild curiosity in the scandal, she finds herself hiding her actions from Bob and confiding, instead, in a couple of female friends–including married writer Nancy. Nancy maintains a string of lovers, and one of her more recent  conquests, a local cop,  feeds them information about the case.

Compromising Positions is entertaining, but that’s not to say that it didn’t annoy me at many junctures. It’s written in a very definite style–something along the lines of a wise-cracking newspaper column but extended for about 250 pages. Some of the dialogue is unrealistic, and most of it is constant banter edged with sarcasm. In one passage, Judith speculates about penis size, and I thought this was very juvenile.  Here’s an example of one of the annoying passages which takes place between Nancy and Judith:

“What’s her name?”

“I forget. Some Jewish name.”

“Great. That’s really terrific. I marvel at your powers of recollection. If it was Belinda Jo Slattery, Jr., you’d remember it.”

“Women can’t be juniors. Anyway, it was Naomi Goldberg.”

“Really?”

“No. But if you think I’m going to sit here and take shit from you, you’re whistling Dixie.”

“I would never whistle Dixie,” I vowed.

So why did I keep reading? Judith was easy company and I wanted to find out who killed Bruce Fleckstein.  The R word creeps in here or perhaps it’s just sex wrapped up in Romance.

Some of the best parts of the book concern the snobby women in the community who are now forced to face the fallout from their fornication. These are high-maintenance women who wear designer labels, get regular massages at the local spa, and eat at Quelle Crepe. Most of them are really irritating, so the fact that they’ve been memorialized in cheap Polaroid photos flagrante delicito wearing naughty leather outfits and sporting whips and chains is nastily funny. An underlying current is womens’ liberation and the idea that women who function as housewives may be inherently unhappy. Unhappiness leads to boredom, and boredom led to Bruce. Judith, for example, has permanently shelved her dissertation in order to sink elbow deep into domesticity.

Published in 1978. Compromising Positions was a best-seller and it’s still in print. Not really my taste but the sales figures indicate this book hits a mainstream current of taste.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Compromising Positions by Susan Isaacs

  1. Hello. I hope you feel better. Now be honest how many porn spams did you get with such a post title?
    It sounds it’s been written by a journalist from feminine press.
    Of course I don’t know what M.O. and R words are. Which makes me think I came accross D.D and LL.D. in Thomas Hardy and I need help with it. It’s something about university diplomas given the context but which ones?
    Something else: I tend to think boredom leads to unhappiness.
    Empty lives of vapid housewifes is a cliché now but maybe it was revolutionary to say it aloud in 1978.
    This sounds too Rose (French colour ie too much romance and sex) and not Noir enough for you to like it.

  2. An excellent review to read which I am sure conveys anything that would interest me in the book itself, which I will forego reading. Mrs. KfC and I re-watched the first season of MadMen on the weekend — the bored suburban New York housewife has been a staple of fiction for some time and the trend obviously continues.

    • I was surprised to see the book still in print given that so many others fade rapidly. I read that every one of the author’s books is a best-seller, so evidently her style is popular.

      I ordered Octopus I BTW.

      • We watched Octopus I last week and it is outstanding — right up there with Montalbano. Unlike Montalbano (but like The Wire) each season is a single story, which adds a lot of depth to the experience — but I sure prefer watching on DVD to trying to catch up on a weekly basis.

        Anyway, Mrs. KfC said after Octopus 1 that “this is too powerful to just go on to another one” so even though we have all four, we’ll give it a break for a week or two. I note that the Australians have subtitled them all, so I am presuming that the American source will make more available in the next year or two.

        Mrs. KfC loves you because these Italian shows are exactly the language refreshment she needs before heading off this spring — and I am intrigued at how easily I slip into it (and I don’t speak Italian).

  3. Never heard of this and am not totally convinced I should investigate any further… but I still liked reading the review. That dialogue is so rotten.
    Sorry to hear you were not well. I hate it when an illness affects my concentration.

  4. I can’t stand books where every character wisecracks unless they’re very well done indeed, which this doesn’t sound like it is. There’s definitely a place for books to read when one’s attention is lacking (and I hope you feel better), but I already have some of those at home. One to pass I think.

    Even in the ’70s I suspect it wasn’t a new concept. Revolutionary Road was well over a decade earlier after all and explored that suburban boredom theme. I’m sure there’s much earlier examples.

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