An Offbeat Women’s Novel: Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York

“What are you going to major in in college, Sheila?”
“Liberal arts.”
“I think teaching is such a good profession for a woman. Good starting salary. Good vacations, and it’s always something that a girl can fall back on. Even if you get married, it’s always something you can go back to when the kids are older.”
Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York, by Gail Parent

How I laughed over the passage above!  I had the same conversation with my own mother. The narrator of this witty novel, Sheila Levine, is adamant about not wanting to teach.  She wants to do something creative after college, preferably something that will get her written up in Vogue.

I kept underlining passages as I chortled over Gail Parent’s 1972 novel, Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York. (I ‘d never heard of it until it came up recently as a recommendation at Amazon.)  Written in the form of a suicide note, it reads like women’s stand-up comedy,  hilarious, poignant, and unabashedly unpolitically correct:   Sheila has problems with “women’s lib.” Unlike the beautiful heroines of ’70s feminist best-sellers like Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying and Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen,  Sheila Levine is an overweight sexy girl who doesn’t attract the men she is attracted to.  She doesn’t mind being an easy lay:  she enjoys sex.   She is very funny, but we do feel her pain and grief increasingly as the book goes on.

Sheila is tired at 30 of being a single Jewish  woman in New York.  She wittily describes her history of bad dates,  her smashed expectations of  finding romance, the sharing of a one-bedroom apartment with two roommates and an impecunious gay man sleeping on the couch–and the scenes are familiar, though Parent’s language is blunter and brasher than is likely to appeal to the overly-sensitive ears of today’s delicate feminists. Don’t faint or swoon, okay?  Parent is a very good writer.   Although I am of a later generation than Sheila and never thought in terms of husband-hunting, we all had our hair-raising stories of single life, and were very happy to get married.  Those who didn’t marry cope in their own way, some very well, some very badly.

Sheila has a lot of sex at Syracuse University, never with men she really likes, but she enjoys the sex. And she cynically describes the ritual of smart women working as hard for  that Mrs. degree as for the B.A.  After sophomore year, if the juniors don’t have boyfriends, they transfer to another school, because they can’t compete with the incoming freshmen.  After transferring to NYU, where Sheila majors in drama/education, she can’t decide if she’s in love with Hinley, the  professor-director, who gives her a C- in children’s theater, or Joshua,  the star actor of all the plays. By the way, Sheila is their gofer. Hinley has given her the key to his apartment, and all three hang out.   Imagine her surprise when she finally figures out they are a gay couple.

After graduation, the employment agencies keep referring her to  typing jobs, though she specifically says she isn’t interested.  She finally finds a “creative” job through the Jewish community of friends and relatives of her parents.   Rose Lehman’s sister knows of a  children’s record company which is expanding, “owing to a Christmas hit he had where a lot of squirrels sang.”  (Oh my goodness, remember Alvin and the Chipmunks?)  All of Sheila’s Jewish friends get jobs through friends and family.  And it is a resource, with the competition in New York.

Housing is a huge problem in New York. I am horrified by the descriptions of the places she and her college roommate, Linda, see when they hunt for an apartment in the East Village.

Somehow they have believe they’ll find a cute place like an apartment in a Doris Day movie.

Sheila explains,

My roommate, Linda, and I decided way back in Syracuse that if weren’t married by the time we graduated, we probably would at least be engaged, and we would live together in Manhattan.  Why not?  Didn’t Doris Day always have a  precious, little two-bedroom  apartment, all yellow and light-blue and cuddly?  Nothing pretentious–just a modest fifteen-hundred-a-month apartment in a gorgeous brownstone that poor Doris paid for with her unemployment check.  The sheets and pajamas alone must have cost a fortune.  Four years of college apiece, and Sheila Levine and Linda Minsk didn’t know that Hollywood had been deceiving them all these years.  We thought that if we were good girls and looked hard enough, Doris Day, when she was carried off into blissful matrimony, would sublet her place to us.

I found this book fascinating:  it’s also blessedly short, so you can read it in a day.  Sheila is raised from toddlerhood to expect to get married, and is so depressed that the culture, including movies, revolves around that and then doesn’t deliver,  that she plans to commit suicide, even after she meets a man who gives her orgasms (he also gives her a fungus!).  The novel goes in a very odd direction.   I enjoyed this enormously, once I got into the mode of the style of another time!

Parent is a screenwriter who has won two Emmys, and her other books are out-of-print.   There’s not much information about them online, but if anyone knows a good place to start, let me know..

12 thoughts on “An Offbeat Women’s Novel: Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York

  1. Do you remember the film of A Man for All Seasons in which Thomas More keeps telling Richard Rich to ‘be a teacher’? That came out just as I was having to think about what I was going to do after school and I could have screamed at the screen because I knew just how Rich felt – everyone kept saying to me ‘be a teacher’ and I hated it. But do you know what? They were right. I am a teacher, by which I mean it is what I instinctively do. Put me in front of a group, any group, and I will teach it. I can’t imagine a life in which I didn’t teach. Mind you, I’m not sure that those people who were ‘advising’ me actually recognised that. I’m fairly certain that it was their stock answer for any girl they couldn’t docket in any other way.

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    • We women are universally told that! But, ahem, Sheila’s mother was right, and she does eventually teach. Bizarrely, Sheila becomes much better at it after she decides to kill herself…but I’m going into the “spoiler” territory.

      On Wed, Nov 15, 2017 at 2:32 AM, mirabile dictu wrote:

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  2. The conversation Sheila had with her mother I had with both parents. I am a teacher, it was something to “fall back on” when my husband and I needed more money and I had a child who needed me home regularly, but its satisfactions were like those of “Cafe Society:” I find great gratification and do it now for free at Oscher Institutes of Lifelong Learning.

    But the novel is about more than this and Sheila’s sounds like a real and hard life. I looked up the author, yes she’s a screenplay and TV writer. I can see how she’d succeed with 1970s comedy on TV. Let’s hope she’s doing well today.

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    • Yes, and, ahem, Sheila falls back on teaching too (though in a rough neighborhood, and she isn’t that keen on it). Our parents were right, even if they didn’t teach themselves!

      On Wed, Nov 15, 2017 at 5:23 AM, mirabile dictu wrote:

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        • Oh, it’s not the teaching–it’s the whole society! Sheila is a rebel. But I agree with you about teaching: it’s one of the better jobs for both sexes.

          On Wed, Nov 15, 2017 at 9:36 AM, mirabile dictu wrote:

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