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Living Room

Author(s): Sol Stein

Originally published in 1974, this landmark novel is available in ebook format for the first time.
 
Shirley Hartman, at twenty-eight, was the star of Madison Avenue, a woman who’d made it to the top in the male-dominated advertising game. Beauty, brains, fame, love…yet there she was, standing on a lonely rooftop, contemplating suicide. Had Shirley pushed too hard and reached too far—or can this extraordinary woman break out to some living room beyond career success and the usual arrangements with a man?
 
“Shirley Hartman is as much a feminist as Portia, Becky Sharp or Scarlett O’Hara. In her, Stein has created a heroine yearning for that living space that men and women need after social and financial triumph. The kind of novel one keeps on ready.”
New Republic
 
“A roller coaster reader ride. Shirley Hartman is a ball of fire you are not likely to forget.”
John Barkham Reviews

Excerpt


 Philip Hartman’s daughter, at age sixteen, was one of fifteen hundred students in her school who were requested to take a test administered by a team of psychologists from the Board of Education. As part of the effort of the time to eliminate surprise from the world, it was a new kind of I.Q. test, all the students were told, which graded not only relative aptitude and intelligence but the possibility of realizing the indicated potential. Shirley scored highest in her class of thirty-two. Her teacher, Mrs. Calcagni, who Shirley characterized to her friends as an “Uncle Tom in womanface,” hated girls who, in her view, “tried to be smarter than everybody,” which meant smarter than the boys, too. When Shirley’s test score proved to be eleven percent higher than the next highest, Mrs. Calcagni accused Shirley of having cheated. Shirley was retested alone in an empty office adjoining the principal’s office, watched over by a monitor, and scored four points higher than she had previously simply by being familiar with the test. This put her at the top not just of her class but of the entire school.
 
When Philip Hartman heard of this, he said, “I ask you, did King Solomon have an I.Q. test? Did Spinoza, Marx, Freud? I don’t believe in tests like that.”
 
Shirley knew her father venerated the powers of the mind. She therefore suspected that he was worried about something else. If a girl had a superior intelligence, it narrowed greatly the field of prospective husbands. On one of their Sunday walks, she confronted him with this suspicion, and Philip Hartman exploded.
 
“You think I’m not on your side, your own father? Do I want my peace in heaven disturbed by knowing my smart daughter is such a success she is living alone, without a husband and children?” Later he said, “Who am I to talk? What do I know about how people believe today? Shirley,” he said, “maybe God knows what He’s doing.”
 
“Maybe she does.”
 
Hartman couldn’t believe he had heard correctly. “That’s terrible,” he said in a tumultuous whisper. “God is God.”
 
“You called Him He.”
 
“Everybody calls Him He!”
 
“Not everybody,” said Shirley.
 
In another century, thought Philip Hartman, she would be burned like a witch.
 
Trying to bottle the stridency in his voice, Hartman said, “God made Adam before He made Eve.”
 
“God made the devil before making Adam. Maybe he got his priorities mixed up. Let’s run.”
 
Hartman watched his daughter gambol off ahead of him, soon so far ahead he thought he would never catch up as he found himself clumsily trotting after her, panting, thinking this was not good for his heart. If a devil had got into Shirley, it must have come from him. He was as responsible for her as God was for people. Was there a Jewish family anywhere that the father didn’t pretend to be the head, the teacher, the leader, the patriarch, while in actual fact the balebusta, the housekeeper, cook-in-chief, budget-maker, budget-keeper was really in charge of everything including not only the patriarch himself but the destiny of the children? Shirley had better slow down or she would have his death on her conscience.
 
His own father, rest his memory, had taught him that in Russia women added ova to their husband’s names, he would be Hartman, his wife Hartmanova, his mind was whirling, was he thinking of something no scholar had ever thought of before, that Jehova is a woman’s name? God in heaven, forgive us all, God a She? What was happening to the world?
 
*
 
Two years later, when Shirley, despite her Bronx background won a full scholarship to Barnard College, Hartman, his hands clasped in joy, said, “I don’t know why God should be this good to me. I don’t go to shul. Weeks pass, I don’t even think of God.”
 
“Maybe God isn’t paying attention,” said Shirley.
 
“Please,” said Hartman, “don’t ever say anything like that in front of Mrs. Bialek.”
 
*
 
In her freshman year, Shirley chose as her project the rewriting of the Federalist Papers from a woman’s point of view. When Hartman found out what she was up to, he said, “It’s none of my business, I haven’t read these Federalist whatevers, I should be ashamed, but is nothing sacred?”
 
Shirley did not know how to convey her intention to him.
 
“Your teachers approve of this?”
 
“Yes.”
 
“The next thing you’ll be rewriting the Talmud,” he joked. 
 
“Maybe.” She kissed him on the cheek.
 
*
 
At the end of her freshman year, she won the Virginia Gildersleeve Prize for Creative Writing for a short story. The night before the award ceremony, Hartman said, “Are you writing so much above my head already? Don’t you think a father should read the thing that won the prize?”
 
So she let him read it, an understated narrative from the point of view of a seven-year-old girl whose mother has just died.
 
When Shirley returned, she found him weeping openly. “They think this is good?” he said. “It’s terrible. It makes people cry, is that what you want to do with your life?”
 
She did not know how to step across that gulf.
 
*
 
Shirley graduated in 1964 magna cum laude.
 
“Graduate school,” said Hartman, “which?”
 
“Maybe one day. Not now. I’d like to try working.”
 
“At a job?”
 
“I can teach in a private school without a graduate degree. There are a lot of secretarial jobs. I can type. I can handle the phone. I can write. I want to see what it’s like out there.”
 
After a moment’s silence, Hartman said, “Your mother will be very disappointed.”

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ISBN (Print):
ISBN (Electronic): 9781611876291
Genre: Contemporary
Date Published: 10/25/2013
Publisher: Untreed Reads

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