There's a trick to mining comedy from tragedy, and bestselling novelist Susan Isaacs knows exactly how to make it work. Witness what happens to her latest heroine, Susan B. Anthony Rabinowitz Gersten, a comfortable, upper-middle-class mother/wife/floral arranger who learns that her plastic-surgeon husband has been found stabbed to death in the Upper East Side apartment of a second-rate escort.
Susie is distraught, of course. She believes her husband has always been faithful and a good father to their 4-year-old triplets. But she can't help her practical, slightly shallow response: ``I was afraid of a call from the accountants saying, `We've been going over your expenses, and sad to say, we were overly optimistic. You can no longer afford video on demand.' ''
The intrepid Susie sets out to find out why her husband ended up in such a place in As Husbands Go (Scribner, $25), and Isaacs, who appears Thursday at Books & Books in Coral Gables, keeps her quest at a steady comic level.
``You don't have a heroine of tragic proportions here,'' explains the author of 12 novels from her house in Long Island (she also has a home in Key Biscayne). ``She starts out superficial. . . . She's kind of a normal person, not someone who explores the depths of her feelings and the profundity of everything. She's hit with something terrible, but she still can't shut out the normal reactions to life, like how her mascara looks.''
Susie's wry, self-deprecating voice ``is everything, really. The voice is going to say to the reader, `Come along. I'm going to take you with me. You're going to be in good hands. You're going to hear this story in an interesting, amusing way.' That's how Susie came to me. . . . There may come a point when I'll have someone who has the tragic sense of life, but so far all my characters -- including the men -- keep going. They're fighters.''
They're also the sort of characters her readers genuinely love and admire, from the heroic secretary on an undercover mission in Nazi Germany in Shining Through and the political reporter searching for the mother who abandoned her in Any Place I Hang My Hat to the tenacious amateur sleuth in Compromising Positions and Long Time No See.
``I love her stuff. She's who I want to be when I grow up,'' says novelist Jennifer Weiner, author of Fly Away Home, Good in Bed and In Her Shoes, who says she reads Shining Through just about every summer. ``Her heroines are smart. They're funny and Jewish -- which doesn't hurt! They're not necessarily the beauty queen but the girl who gets the happy ending because she's clever and generous and warmhearted. I don't think she's ever written a heroine I wouldn't want to be friends with. And I think she's really brilliant in a Jane Austen way about social strata and place. She nails all the details.''
With their plucky heroines, Isaacs' books are the sorts of novels that tend to get lumped into the chick-fiction genre. Such casual categorizing irritates her.
``If a book is about women, and it has anything to do with relationships, it's chick lit. It really is so condescending, because it just basically says all women are interested in is love. . . . That's just dumb as hell. It's not the majority, but I always have had a male readership.''
A former editor of Seventeen and one-time political speechwriter, the Brooklyn-born Isaacs published her first book, Compromising Positions, in 1978 (she also adapted the novel into a screenplay for a film starring Susan Sarandon and Raul Julia). Since then, she's seen staggering changes in a publishing industry struggling to find its footing in an unsure economy and a time of swift technological advancement.
New ways of marketing, selling and reading books don't ``affect me as a writer. They affect me as someone who eventually has a product that has to be sold,'' Isaacs says. ``Narrative is narrative. . . . What changes is how you reach the people who read you. But fewer first novels are being chosen [for publication], and the advances are about the same as the advances when I began in '78. . . . And everybody's in a snit about the e-books. But I love book stores. . . . People have to touch books, look at the flap copy. The good stores are going to stay, but will they have the stock they do now? No.''
Despite her love for the tangible, physical assets of stores, Isaacs is far from a Luddite about technology: ``If people want to read me in digital form, I don't care!''
Her iPad is loaded with books and videos to entertain her on a trip to the Galapagos Islands. ``When I'm on a long plane ride, I want a lot to keep me amused,'' she says. ``But I still buy books in paper. The upside of the e-reader is the font! The downside is after you've had one for awhile -- and I had one of the original Sonys -- you yearn for color. You yearn for a book jacket, for the different weights of a book. [Using an e-reader] is going back to the same object time after time after time. You want the sensory pleasure of different books.''
Though she spends most of her time in Long Island, Isaacs loves Miami and talks about it like a native, admitting that although she has friends who are diehard Heat fans, she wishes LeBron James had stayed in Cleveland. She is excited about the new Florida Marlins stadium, though, and she's looking forward to a visit to Books & Books.
``I view in Miami in July and August as a big hair challenge,'' she jokes. ``I like it. We always come a couple of times during the summer because it is the summer, and it's not at its busiest. You go into a store, and everybody wants to talk. You go into a mid-century antique place, and they'll give you a history of 1950s chairs. And like mad dogs and Englishmen, I stay out of the sun at noon.''