Nancy Price's most famous work is a story of survival, mental illness and abuse written in a simple yet detailed midwestern style. "The day before Martin lost his wife Sara, he watched her walk away from him, her long hair lifted at the edges by wind from the Atlantic. A beauty shop door shut behind her, flashing sun. Martin's eyes were as brown and cold as leftover coffee."
Sara is the perfect victim in a sense, for men that is. She is thin. Very thin. Too skinny, yet has sizable breasts. Her naturally blond hair is curled at the beauty parlor.
" 'How's that!' Carmen held out a mirror, and Sara twisted around to look at the sides and the back of her head.
'Fine' Sarah said. 'That's just the way my husband likes it.' She rubbed her forehead with the heel of her hand, her eyes shut, then gave the mirror back."
Sara rubs her forehead with the heel of her hand a lot. A victim gesture. It is a cute version of facepalm, that in any given culture means nothing positive; sarcasm, frustration, anger, annoyance, fear or worry. Sara's facepalm could mean any or all of these emotions. Sara looks tired and it is often repeated how thin she is, for like a trapped animal her only thoughts lie in escape, as one does not sit down to eat a cheese sandwich when they are always on guard of being attacked by a wild animal.
Martin is that predator. He beats Sara for accidently leaving his sweater out to be eaten by moths. He beats her for running away. She falls down the steps of their Manhasset house. Ruptures her spleen. Breaks her wrist so that it will be permanently turned at an odd 10 degree angle. The doctor comments that it must have been quite a fall. Yes, it was quite a fall.
At the YMCA, Sara takes swimming lessons. At home and pretty much any other time, she plans. She used to be afraid to swim. Her brother died while swimming across a lake with her when he had pneumonia. He made a face and started to drown, while clinging to Sara. They are both in their teens, and his weight drags Sara under the surface of the water.
The guilt from her brother's demise haunts Sara, as he clung to her and she went down with him but an innate mechanism, the will to live revived in her and she fought, and bit and kicked until her brother let go. He stayed down and she came back up for air.
Sara had hated the water ever since. Feared it. But her husband's demeaning assaults, his abuse forces her into the water. There is no where else to go. She tells Martin, that she is taking a course at Boston University when she is really taking the swimming lessons.
The women at the Y notice Sara's bruises. On her back, her legs and her arms. Sara tells the other women that she gardens and bruises easily. They wonder at her excuses but since she is an adult making excuses, there is little the women can do, but coax her into the water and cheer for her when she begins to swim. She probably already knew how to swim, but getting in the water would be the hard part. And swim she does, naturally and strongly through clear, clean water, where it is safe and the world makes sense for a time.
But if she comes home late at all from swimming, or classes as far as Martin knows, then he beats her. He beats her for breathing. Then he will bring her gifts. A black, silk teddy that Sara puts on in front of Martin. All her bruises are revealed as she wears the lingerie. She makes love to Martin and lets him do the same to her, pretending that she likes it because if she doesn't, she's afraid he will kill her.
But all the while Sara lives without identity under Martin's totalitarian hegemony, she maps out routes for an escape. She works part time at a library, a job she puts up a fight for with Martin. She loves books.
But very little money could be saved for an escape. It all goes into a bank account she shares with Martin. Still, she plans out an escape route all the same. Sara is brave.
At Manhasset, Martin makes Sara go for a boat ride with himself and a neighbor named Joe. Sara says she doesn't like water, but Martin makes her go anyway as she knew he would. "The water would be as cold as a pistol against her head: I'll kill you if you ever leave me again...Sara gripped the boat's edge, her stiff legs jammed against the wood. The lump on her head ached, and so did her bruised breast. The first of the big swells battered the side. Sara had seen them coming, knew they would come - tide ran with the wind against it over the shallow bay. Their boat heeled crazily in darkness with no moon...the boom swept across the lee of the cockpit like a sythe - swept across water that poured over the coaming and an empty seat."
Sara was swimming from buoy to buoy, ignoring Martin's calls for her. She swims to the blackened house. She had broken the lights with stones earlier that day so she would know where to swim.
Martin and Joe go to the police station. And the missing Sara is reported. The police suspect the Burney marriage was not the smoothest and inquire at the train and bus stations if any blond was seen that night. No one has any information to give them.
Martin always thought, "Women were different from men. Painted their faces. Liked to be bossed. Twitched the asses and tits around and didn't look you in the eye. Mysteries." Yes, Martin Burney that erudite fellow on women, thinking all women are prostitutes who like to be beaten up and told what to do.
Martin finds journals of Sara's, though one should find it odd that he never went through them earlier as psycho controlling as he is. It is only after her escape/death that he bothers to break the locks and know Sara's neatly ordered thoughts. Maybe it didn't make a difference to him what she thought until he really needed to find her. Or felt he did. She writes about her days, how she feels bad lying to get out of dates, how she met Martin. Their honeymoon. The joy of their first knowing each other. She never writes of when she was first hit or how it happened. But her words, all the same descend into a pit, going from the thoughts of a happily married woman with a future ahead of her, perhaps graduate school in library sciences to feeling like a beaten down prostitute.
But she swims toward the house she had with Martin, with its tomato red kitchen he got for her after he broke her toe. She does not turn on the lights but braids her blond wet hair and pins it to the top of her head. She dries off any wet footsteps in the same manner she swept away her footsteps from sand on the beach. She takes the little money and food she managed to stash away without Martin's notice, puts on a brunette wig of short, wavy hair.
In pants, a long sleeved t-shirt, low heeled sandals and tinted glasses, Sara hurries behind pines, along the side of the road until she gets to the bus station. She takes a bus to Boston, then one on to Cedar Falls Iowa.
Sara is starving, but manages to find a job just in time, working for a University of Northern Iowa Professor, Dr. Channing who specialized in Henry James, but was in a car accident and now needs round the clock care. Sara attends to Dr. Channing during the afternoons. The job is offered to her by Mrs. Nepper, the lady who Sara rents a room from.
Sara wears her wig at all times, and at first refuses to be seen in public with Ben Woodward, who she is dating, a tall cute redheaded professor who lives next door. Ben works in the drama department and it is here the novel takes a rather fantastic turn. Sara dresses as a man with the help of Ben who gives her access to costume pieces from the university's theater department. She uses the costume to go in disguise to see her blind mother, who is in a nursing home.
Ben never asks her why she cross dresses. But Ben is highly educated and doesn't pry. Sara has a right to be cautious to say the least, as her husband quit his job at Rambaugh Computer Sales and Service so he can stalk her full time. The story takes on the sensibility of a Greek tragedy. It hints that men, if not women have predatory tendencies, but it takes education and mental stability not to act on them. Perhaps women have such instincts as well, but as for Sara, she is too busy fending people off to act unnecessarily aggressively toward anyone.
Though Ben is nice, he is not a rescuer. It is her husband who shoots himself, as Sara stands in front of him in drag, as they find themselves in a motel room together. Perhaps her cross dressing symbolizes the extremes that someone who is abused loses their identity. As long as Martin was alive Sara's identity goes from Sara Burney to Laura Pray in her brunette wig to Larry Day with a beard. But when Martin dies, Sara becomes herself again. Also, Martin was not the only man with stalker tendencies, as she was also being given explicit notes by a student who lived nearby. Martin shoots at the student the same night before he kills himself. It scares the student so Sara is hopefully free from abusive men for the rest of her life, and will be able to be herself.
By Sarah Bahl