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The Travails of a Martyred and Woebegone Heroine

February 16, 1987|CAROLYN SEE

Scarlett Greene by Barbara Ucko (St. Martin's: $18.95)

Scarlett Greene, Barbara Ucko's curmudgeonly fictional heroine, is related by temperament to Florence King's "failed Southern lady," and also to the simpering pain-in-the-neck who inhabits Philip Roth's one imagined foray into female psychology, "When She Was Good." "Scarlett Greene" is set in the '60s (you can tell mainly because it ends in 1970) but the particular mind-set that Scarlett Greene (the person, not the novel) embodies, is timeless. Unfortunately.

When first we meet Scarlett, she's still in high school and weighs in at 170 pounds. Why? Because her mother bakes cookies and makes her eat them. Her clothes are hideous. Why? Because her mother buys her hideous clothes. Her father is as unattractive as a bridge troll and just about as stupid. They live in a cement block house in Georgia with trash strewn all over it. Scarlett has assorted siblings, including Lester and Mellie. Who takes care of them and washes, irons, cooks and cleans? Scarlett, of course, because her mother lies in bed all day and reads romances. And her father never really even noticed when she was born.

A Miserly Grandfather

Scarlett has never had a date. She is frantic for a date, would kill for a date, needs a date, and finally gets a first date and then a second date. (As many times as the word date appears in that sentence, that's one-third as many times as the word date appears in the first eighth of this novel.) Scarlett loses weight and gets a date with a scum bag named Greg, who has another girlfriend, but what the heck? A date's a date.

The subsidiary plot line here is that Scarlett is a genius in chemistry and born to be a medical doctor. By subterfuge, she goes off to Madison, Wis., to live with her grasping, miserly grandfather who has sold off all of his furniture, and cemented over his backyard, and continually inventories his cans of tomato paste, and makes her read by 60-watt light bulbs. Scarlett goes to class in discount boots, a K mart parka and her mother's soiled muumuu. (That's because her grandfather, though he's paying her tuition and giving her room and board, won't buy her pretty clothes.) All the boys Scarlett meets at college spit when they talk and bray like donkeys and insult her, so her life is not pleasant.

Then Scarlett meets Donald, who dislikes having sex, has no sense of humor, and is a retarded mama's boy. Naturally--since she's been doing all the disgusting household tasks for her grandfather, and since her parents never write or send her any Christmas or birthday presents, and because she's always in the grip of a ravening sex drive she never adequately bothers to explain--Scarlett falls madly in love with moron Donald, who sees in her a ticket to get him through medical school.

Even though Donald only sleeps with her on alternate weekends and floating national holidays, Scarlett "gladly" begins a regimen of education classes so that after they graduate she can work like a galley slave teaching children she doesn't like, so that Donald can go ahead and get his degree.

Naturally, even though Scarlett has lost weight and bought some clothes, still no one has ever bought her a gift, or given her the time of day, and she's furious, furious, furious--at her parents, her boyfriends, her grandfather, her two girlfriends. (One lives in a trailer and pops babies like fish in a barrel, the other wears jewelry and goes out with men who are bald.)

Of course, Scarlett would never go on the Pill because she might gain weight. (If by computer analysis, you could remove the sentences here that have to do with eating and not eating, gaining and not gaining, losing and not losing, what was served and not served for breakfast, lunch and dinner, you'd have perhaps an 80-page novella.) But though not on the Pill, Scarlett keeps pursuing Donald, who does give in from time to time. And when she's off in some boondocks town, doing team teaching--which she hates--she, more or less in a fit of boredom, goes to bed a couple of times with her team teacher, who happens to be a black man.

Scarlett moves back to Madison, discovers she's pregnant. Donald is convinced it's his baby. She--paying the possibilities no mind at all--goes ahead and marries the poor simpleton, gains 70 pounds and has the baby, who is black. Donald is miffed beyond words and divorces her. Her grandfather is livid, her parents still don't write, her jewelry-wearing girlfriend takes her in, but, to this reader at least, the novel is by now in big, big trouble.

Even if this girl is a scientific genius, you can justify her martyrdom to the domestic chores of a family who sneers at her. Admit it: A great many of us are in thrall to one or two people who hate us and everything we do, and yet we go on trying to please them.

Unlikable Personality

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