Firstly there is the whole Dawn thing. He creates this man, makes him a prime physical specimen, now, according to the American Dream, he has to marry an equally perfect physical specimen, so what better than to make her a beauty queen. But then he doesn't want to be accused of giving him an 'airhead' wife, a trophy wife, so he pretends to make her a 'real' character. She is an ordinary girl, who just wants to look after her family (her father has a heart attack and cannot support them, so she is only doing the pageant to win the scholarship for her brother ... for her brother you note, would he have done the same for her had the situation been reversed?) He allows her to stand up for herself when Lou Levov, Seymour's father, is all up in arms about her Catholicism, and the Swede admires her strength of spirit, but instantly compares it to her physical frailty, the thing that really inspires his protective instincts. She does not win Miss America and returns home, marries the Swede and decides to raise cows (leaving behind her dream of being a music teacher.) Then regularly through the book he comes back to, and reiterates forcefully, how she rejects the whole 'former Miss New Jersey' label and refuses to be defined by that part of her life. But it just feels like he is labouring the point too hard, as if to prove that he takes her seriously. After Merry's disappearance she basically has a break down and only recovers after a face lift and building a new home for them (or as it turns out for herself and the architect). To sum up, the final description of her, "Pretty, petite, unpolitical Dawn".
The other women are all terrible clichés: Levov's mother is a long suffering wife of a belligerent, opinionated, domineering man, she has no role in the tale other than to bear his children and listen to his diatribes. Dawn's mother is just a shadow who talks about church all the time, causing friction by trying to influence Merry as a child, totally one dimensional. Marcia, the wife of his best friend, only appears briefly, mainly to be a contrast to Dawn. She is forthright and vociferous, "an oddball from another world, the academic world, the intellectual world, where always to be antagonising people and challenging whatever they said was apparently look on with admiration." (p.341) The author pits the women against each other, with Marcia scorning Dawn for her beauty, belittling her, refusing to hear Dawn's protestations that it does not define her. She is just a caricature of a feminist, unattractive and loud. And finally Sheila Salzman, Merry's speech therapist, who returns to the denouement of the story as having been briefly the Swede's lover after his wife's breakdown. She is just this nice, well-meaning, bland woman, devoid of personality.
Then there is Merry. She never got to be a woman at all. She remains a little girl to her father all through the story. But she is really just part of his fantasy life, the one who is supposed to jump off the swing and run into his arms at the end of the day. He can't imagine another dimension to her existence, which is why he can never understand what brings her to the point where she bombs the post office. He experiences her stuttering as a kind of affront to his perfect life, so much of her life becomes focussed on trying to fix it rather than just allowing her to be. She moved from being an adoring little daughter into a hostile teenager, he never really tried to understand her, he just kept thinking that if only he talked to her, and said just the right thing, she would turn back into the daughter he wanted, and expected, and deserved. He viewed her only as an extension of his own life, no wonder she rejected him and his values so forcefully.
I was reminded very strongly of the film Running On Empty (made more poignant by the presence of River Phoenix), which concerns a family who's parents had been politically active, involved in a protest bombing that caused someone's death unintentionally, who are then forced to live their lives in the political underground. I wanted that part of the story. I wanted to know what happened to Merry, to see the other side of the American Dream, the underbelly of society, what happens when you reject the accepted values of society. So although I admired the book, it did one thing very effectively, but left me feeling distinctly dissatisfied.