The Promise of a Normal Life - Rebecca Kaiser Gibson

The Promise of a Normal Life, the debut novel by poet & author Rebecca Kaiser Gibson, opens with high expectations. Sailing to Israel in 1967 an 18-year-old girl, the unnamed narrator, longs to connect with Judaism. Beyond that hopeful beginning, there are no assurances nor promises of normalcy for the novel’s protagonist. Yet author Kaiser Gibson provides a compelling portrait of a woman, “having understood that to speak is to risk invective.”  


Growing up with mommy Paulina, a doctor, “always a cigarette hanging from her mouth” and daddy Leonard, a lawyer, the narrator shares her “showstopper” Maryland home with her sister Joyce. The family lives across the country club from their house, which prohibits Jewish membership. Unfazed by the antisemitism in the 1960s, the “debonair de riguer” couple love having people over for drinks, martinis on the porch or poolside entertaining on any occasion. A flamboyant social butterfly but an austere and demanding mother, Paulina expects children to be seen, not heard.


Politely detached from the adults, the girls obediently run errands, assisting Elsie, the house cleaner by handing out plastic plates for hors d’oeuvres and dispensing ashtrays at their parents’ social gatherings. Though the narrator claims Leonard was her “best friend growing up,” there was little conversation between father and daughter. Never lacking material comforts, the sisters enjoyed “many pastimes of the rich” skiing, tennis, riding lessons. None of these activities were a choice either made. After sister Joyce left home, the narrator remained a marionette, operated and managed by her mother.  


While on board the ship traveling to Israel, the narrator reveals she was sexually assaulted by the hairdresser. Astonishingly she admits it was her fault though she was asleep in his chair when the incident happened. Upon return to the states, daddy Leonard warned, “You are not to talk to anyone about this, not to anyone.” Obedient, she doesn’t.


A year later, in her senior year at university, she meets Tom. She “wants Tom to design her life around his." She wishes Tom would tell her what to do. Tom proposes with, “I can’t see any good reason not to get married." They marry within a week. Tom convinces her it’s best to take separate vacations and sleep in a "big bed" so they don’t touch. When Tom’s secretary moves into their home, she remains a “stepford wife,” subordinate to her husband’s will. And when the very married Mickey, an associate of her secretarial pool at MIT, asks, “Do you love your husband?” she is unsure how to answer though she consents to sleep with him and to meet Mickey’s wife.  


A novel that reads in the style of Virginia Wolf’s stream of consciousness, Kaiser Gibson’s literary canvas is a showcase for women who dare to speak up.