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A Dangerous Woman is an Almost Perfect Novel

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Almost perfect novels are rare, so it is always an unexpected pleasure when I discover one. Mary McGarry Morris' A Dangerous Woman is one of those finds. I consider it close to perfect becauses Morris mines the turf she has chosen to write about expertly and exquisitely. She depicts people the way they are and society the way it is. Not how either should be, but how they are. That is the penultimate achievement in writing fiction.

Martha Horgan thrives on routines or falls apart. For her, everything must fit into patterns. Pencils and pens, books and lunch money had to be aligned just so on her desk when she was in school. Everything has a ritual. Before saying anything she considers significant, she must tap her chest several times and take a certain number of breaths. She believes in telling what she thinks is the truth – even when doing so will serve no beneficial purpose. She is chronically unable to distinguish between what really matters and what doesn't.

As if these traits were not enough, Martha hates children, a characteristic bound to get a person in trouble in most societies. Perhaps it is because, in the atavistic way they have, they sense her difference from normal people right away and question or mock her immediately. That results in mutual tormenting that has a 32-year old swatting four-year-olds or throwing rocks at adolescents while walking down the street. Most of the residents of her Vermont town consider Martha, a difficult, even evil, person to be avoided.

Though it is never named in A Dangerous Woman, Martha's symptoms match those of autism, most likely the condition known as Asperger Syndrome. Unable to find any useful treatment for the disorder, Martha's rich aunt, Frances, has given up on resolving her problems. They coexist in a lifestyle characterized by Martha's surliness and punctuated by her ungovernable tantrums.

The status quo changes when Martha runs away from home after one of her emotional explosions. She obtains a job at a drycleaners and a room in a boarding house. And, for the first time, Martha has a friend, Birdy, the manager of the drycleaners. Martha becomes a model employee in an environment where routine is key. No one fills out tickets as accurately or remembers to collect the free shirt coupon as well as she does.

However, Martha's achievement is short-lived. Her affection can be as overwhelming and suffocating as her contempt. It is not long before Birdy colludes with the owner of the cleaners in getting rid of Martha. They falsely accuse her of having stolen money from the till.

Chastened, Martha returns to her aunt's house. But, she doesn't give up. Her obsessiveness will not allow her to. Birdy is forced to change her phone number to unlisted after Martha calls her relentlessly, sometimes hundreds of times each day. Martha also stalks the woman she considers her only friend and sends her an avalanche of letters through an intermediary. Totally out of touch with the way the world works, Martha believes she can regain Birdy's trust by telling the truth: The real thief is Birdy's boyfriend, Getso.

The ultimate tragedy of the novel could not occur without the normal problems of normal people intersecting with Martha's special problems. Together, they form a combustible mixture. Frances' life is disrupted when her long term paramour's alcoholic wife makes a sudden recovery.

Birdy's impressive ability not to see what she does not want to see about her lover is challenged by Martha's intrusions. The fuse for Martha's meltdown is Colin Mackey, a down-and-out writer who needs love and a patron, but not in that order. Any of these three people could prevent the worst from happening. They have the ability to control their actions Martha lacks. But, none of them do. Instead of an emotional rescue, the interactions of the characters lead inexorably to a violent climax.

The only aspect of A Dangerous Woman I find wanting is the back story. I would like to know more about the Horgans, the "white trash" family Frances left behind in her Cinderella-like transformation. Were there other Horgans who had symptoms similar to Martha's? Did poverty mask autistic syndrome behaviors in a class people expect little of?

I believe we have become too used to perceiving physical and mental illnesses through the lens of "disorder of the week" movies. Such offerings often strip the conditions of their complexity. Mary McGarry Morris is too fine a writer to reduce a serious illness that prevents most of its sufferers from being able to function in society to pabulum. No one gets off easily, including Martha. The reader spends as much time thinking, 'Oh, God! Don't do that,' about her as he does mumbling "poor, poor thing". Martha's inability to "see" other people's interests is just as annoying as their casual cruelty to her. Morris has created one of the most frustrating — and memorable — characters in contemporary literature.

Note 1: Doris Lessing's The Fifth Child is another excellent novel about a person with an autistic syndrome disorder.

Note 2: Read more about human rights issues at Silver Rights.

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  • http://sheilaschoonmaker.com Sheila

    First of all, I agree with what you’ve said –> “Morris has created one of the most frustrating — and memorable — characters in contemporary literature.”

    It’s the way you describe Aspergers that I don’t agree with, but I can understand why people mistakenly think Aspergers is a mental illness. Aspergers is no more of an illness than being neurotypical is. Society and books like Mary McGarry Morris’s book, “A Dangerous Woman” contribute to painting a misleading image of what Aspergers is.

    Since society can financial benefit from creating this illusion, it will perpetuate a distorted view that will enable this rather than be motivated to remove it.

    I hope you don’t take what I’ve said as being a personal attack. If you do, then please realize how much I feel personally attacked whenever I see the image of Aspergers being tainted.