...arresting and unforgettable ... Now, eight years after the author’s death, this new edition from New York Review of Books Classics offers readers in the United States a not-to-be-missed opportunity to rediscover an important and underrated voice ... Weinzweig’s slim and increasingly surreal volume defies easy comparison ... Perhaps better than any spy thriller.
Motherhood figures queasily throughout these sometimes frantic, sometimes enervated pages, which trace the zigzag journey of Shirley Kaszenbowski (née Silverberg, alias Lola Montez), as unreliable a narrator as they come ... While the novel maps Shirley’s obsessive searching within a gray urban grid, its real journey is subterranean, taking the form of peregrinations through her jumbled psyche ... We’re treated to fantasies of harried mothers, whoring mothers, suicidal mothers, impoverished mothers, impostor mothers and indifferent mothers pulling their little girls along the sidewalk ... On the particulars of sexism and misogyny, Weinzweig can be superbly caustic. Here is the question: If the protagonist volunteers for her own victimhood, can it be called a work of feminism? The more reasons we’re given to doubt whether [her lover] Coenraad even exists, the more Shirley seems implicated in her own romanticized self-abnegation. And yet there’s something admirably ornery about Weinzweig’s refusal to deliver a straightforward novel of empowerment, a narrative of liberation, a role mode—as if insisting on a flawed heroine is itself an act of resistance. One might even call it a phenomenon of paradox.
Originally published in 1980, Basic Black with Pearls is a lauded (if lost) feminist classic that unravels the ennui and desperation of the disregarded woman ... It echoes narratives like Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper, Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar and even Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays; its taut prose exploring the roles available to women, tinged with an evolving suggestion of madness made by a uniquely female lot ... Weinzweig is certainly deserving of a new crop of readers this new edition is meant to entice – her brisk style and tone remain fresh to a contemporary audience, and her subject matter is still disturbingly relevant.
When I first read Helen Weinzweig’s Basic Black with Pearls several years ago, I emerged in the sort of daze that happens when a book seems to ferret out your most secret thoughts and hopes. Since then I’ve described the book to others as an 'interior feminist espionage novel' ... The interior nature of Basic Black is central to its unfolding ... Basic Black with Pearls contains overt references to Virginia Woolf and covert ones to feminist classics like Kate Chopin’s The Awakening ... These novels describe women not only breaking away from conventions but filled with desire and ambition that are almost too much to bear, a secret from themselves. Weinzweig had to search out these books to counteract decades of reading male-dominated narratives, which she needed to reject to construct her own style ... A novel needs an ending, but Basic Black with Pearls manages to subvert that requirement too.
Basic Black is a sneaky and seminal work of feminist fiction, and its message about men’s maddening tendency to underestimate female fortitude and intelligence is just as relevant today as it was when it first came out ... The book’s real magic lies in its biting humor, its subtle and quick-moving plot, and in the deftness with which Weinzweig juggles characters, scenes, and conflict.
As dazzlingly splintered and disorienting as a hall of mirrors ... [a] marvelously inventive sleight-of-pen fantasy ... spotlight-sharp images and iron-grey wit ... Glittering, uncomfortable, one-of-a-kind fiction.