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Book Review: Sylvia by Leonard Michaels


“Sylvia” is a story about a dysfunctional relationship. Set between 1960-1964 in New York, when jazz was “hip” and “the word love was like a proclamation with the force kill,” We are introduced to the narrator as he cruises back home from Berkeley.  Just as the above quote refers to the free-love movement as well as the Vietnam War, it also pertinently alludes to the narrator’s relationship with Sylvia.  Written in a semi-journal format, which hints at an autobiographical background, Michaels, only known as “I” or “you” in the novel, narrates the story from his perspective.

Michael’s infatuation with Sylvia is cemented upon first sight.  She is beautiful and clever. However, as the novel unfolds, we discover she is a skilled and controlling manipulator with sadistic tendencies. This is a relationship that works on fighting and make-up sex, and although Sylvia’s actions causes Michaels great unhappiness, the small glimpses of love we witness between the two is enough to keep them together. As a skilled manipulator, Sylvia alternates between bolstering Michaels confidence—she has chosen him over other men—and undermining his confidence by humiliating him.  She either sexually compares him to previous lovers or sends him out to buy her Tampax:

“one night, when I returned to the apartment with a box of Tampax, I detected the faintest smile on ' Sylvia’s lips. Having me buy her Tampax turned her on”.

Even the psychologist whom Michaels visits recognises his unmanning, asking Michaels if Sylvia has called him a “homosexual” yet?

As a journal, you are aware this is a one-sided story. Throughout the reading, Sylvia seems to be the one at fault. Pick through the lines, and you begin to get a picture of Michaels own lack of maturity.  This is a man who drifts through his late twenties, avoiding responsibility, unable to make a decision or see through his PhD program.  When Michaels’ psychiatrist explains that their joint behaviour has them “feeding off one another”, the onus of responsibility is equally shared.  However, Michaels selectively ignores this piece of information.  He doesn’t want to admit he may be partially to blame for Sylvia’s behaviour.  Notably, when the psychiatrist suggests institutionalising Sylvia, the knowledge that she is “certifiably, technically nuts” leaves him giddy in the knowledge that he is absolved of responsibility.

An airing about a toxic relationship might not be one’s first choice of subject matter when choosing a novel, however, Michaels writing is compelling.  His sentences have a rhythmic, lyrical quality, which combined with a neat turn of phrase will leave you, pencil in hand, underlining some of the more poetical lines: “I was miserably normal; I was normally miserable.”  A simple swap of words and here the subtle difference in meaning both validates Michaels unexceptional situation, as well as explaining his emotional state as he tries to convince himself that this is a conventional relationship.

Despite the story first appearing in the US in 1990, Michaels remained under the literary radar in the UK.  David Lodge claims the subject matter was so “challengingly unfamiliar in content and form” to British readers it prevented Michaels from establishing a UK fan base.  As you read the novel, caught between alternating emotions of compassion and repugnance, ultimately your sympathy lies with this couple as you realise neither side can let go of one another.  Perhaps 25 years on we have the maturity to handle an honest account of a destructive relationship.  If not, Michaels’ style alone is worthy of appreciation.

Written by Rachel Boser

Sylvia by Leonard Michaels

Publisher: Daunts Books

ISBN: 978-1-907970-55-9


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