Twilight of the Superheroes | Study Guide

Deborah Eisenberg

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Twilight of the Superheroes | Like It or Not | Summary



Kate, a high school biology teacher and divorced mother of two adult children, is spending her spring break visiting her friend Giovanna in Italy. The two women met 30 years before at college, and they have remained in touch over the years through letters and holiday cards. Their first evenings together are spent playing catchup, talking about Kate's mother and children and Giovanna's lovers. Giovanna thinks Kate should go sightseeing for a few days and arranges for Kate to see the Italian coast with Harry, a friend and antique curator. Kate doesn't really want to go, but she also can't think of a reason why she shouldn't.

Harry is a force of nature. He talks during their entire drive up the coast, only pausing his breathless diatribe about local architecture and culture to complain about the tourist traffic on the winding cliff roads. Kate is exhausted by the time they reach the small yet luxurious hotel, but Harry wants to tour the town before dinner. Kate deposits her suitcase in the well-appointed and obviously expensive room before hurrying back out the door for sightseeing.

Harry rushes them through site after site before arranging to meet Kate at the hotel restaurant for dinner at 8:30. Kate returns to her room and pours a bottle of bath salts into the tub's running water. "Why not? They represented her salary," the narrator notes. As she soaks, Kate thinks about how the choices she made earlier in life affect where she is now. She would never have ended up like Giovanna, "casually surrounded by silk-covered furniture and lovely, old pieces of glass and silver," but she might have done better than a gay ex-husband who is terminally ill.

Kate briefly dons a "daring" dress before changing into something more demure and going downstairs for dinner. Harry is talking with a family of four, the Reitzes, in the bar. The crimson-nailed wife is hanging on Harry's every word as he describes crisscrossing the globe to retrieve a valuable statue for a client. A chair is found for Kate while the Reitzes complain about traffic and tourists. Mrs. Reitz makes a comment about how "romantic" the hotel is and wonders about "all the things that must have gone on in these rooms." Harry cuts off the conversation with an excuse about being late for dinner.

Harry apologizes to Kate about the Reitzes then orders dinner for them both. Kate feels "tainted" by Mrs. Reitz's "carnality." No matter where she looks Kate sees a world "ruthlessly bent on physical gratifications." While Harry prattles on about the "terrible people" he encounters in his line of work, Kate thinks about her ex-husband, Baker, and his partner Norman. Kate's mother never said "I-told-you-so" when their marriage ended, but she did wonder aloud why Baker felt "he had the right to ruin [Kate's] life while he was working things out for himself."

Harry suddenly stops talking about himself and asks Kate about her job. She realizes she's drunk as she talks about her students and the subject of biology. Over dessert Harry admits he's very stressed about visiting his childhood farmhouse, which was the reason why he came to the coast in the first place. Distracting herself from the "harsh tears" that spring to her eyes, which she attributes to fatigue, Kate gets Harry to tell her how he met Giovanna.

Harry waves away Kate's attempt to pay for dinner and asks her to join him in the bar for an after-dinner drink. The Reitzes are there. After a brief but uncomfortable conversation in which Kate realizes her gorgeous hotel room was originally supposed to be theirs, she and Harry go upstairs to their separate rooms.

The narrator's point of view switches to that of Harry, who is lying in bed and thinking about the Reitz's underage daughter. "When the buzzing of the girl in his head [grows] unbearable," he thinks about a sleigh bed he saw in a store. He thinks about the farmhouse, which he knows he should sell but can't bear to part with. He goes down to the bar and runs into the girl. He buys her a drink. They chat about where they live, and she tells him she was sent to boarding school because her mother suspected her of having an affair with her piano teacher. Harry suggests they take a walk, but the girl takes him up to her room instead.

The point of view switches back to Kate, who wakes late the next morning. Harry is waiting to say goodbye to her in the lobby. Mrs. Reitz is fussing over him, trying to get him to promise to visit while her daughter petulantly asks if they can leave yet.


Deborah Eisenberg's short stories often focus on a main character who is in unfamiliar surroundings or in uncomfortable situations. Kate, the protagonist of "Like It or Not," fits that description. A European vacation is completely out of character for the practical and thrifty high school teacher. Ever-conscious of exactly how much her hotel stay is costing her, she knows how much she stands out among the hotel's usual clientele of wealthy travelers. "No wonder no one else in the lobby looked much like a schoolteacher," she muses upon seeing her well-appointed room. Kate doesn't belong here, but she doesn't feel like she belongs in her regular life, either. She has the sense she missed her "real" life, the one that occurred in a time line where she didn't marry Baker and raise their children. She suspects life might have been better than the one she ended up with.

The time line of Kate and Baker's divorce isn't explicitly given, but it's clear they've been separated long enough to hate each other for a few years then slowly work their way back to a friendship. Baker has moved on—he has a new partner and a new career—but Kate hasn't. Her thoughts turn to him over and over again during her vacation, and not just because he's dying. Part of Kate still resents the way Baker wrecked the life she had chosen to live. He got to live the life he wanted, but what about her? She plods on just as usual, scraping money together to take care of the kids and the house. The more the reader learns about Kate, the more it is understood she's not just annoyed with Baker, she's a little jealous. He was brave enough to buck societal and familial expectations to live the life he wanted. Dutiful wife and mother Kate has never been able to do that. She tows the line prescribed for her by society's expectations, always being the "sweet," good girl the world taught her she should be.

Part of Kate's problem is she isn't really sure what she wants. Even if she did, she thinks it's too late to get it. Kate is in her late 40s, but she acts as if she has one foot in the grave. She's extremely self-conscious about her age and appearance—she's certain Harry knows just how many jars of face cream she lugs around in her suitcase, and she won't go to the bar by herself because "women of her age were conspicuous on their own." In her mind women are supposed to act a certain way—they should be modest, pleasant, and nonthreatening. That's why she changes out of the "daring" dress moments after putting it on, and it's why she never tells Harry she doesn't want to go sightseeing after a day in the car. Kate is so concerned with following society's repressive rules and expectations for womanhood she doesn't allow herself the opportunity to figure out what would actually make her happy.

While Kate wonders about what her life would have been like if she had made different choices, Harry actively tries to reclaim his youth. Harry's not a wholly bad person, but he's also not a good one. He's materialistic, snobby, and a little bossy. He's also attracted to very young women. He originally met Giovanna when she was 13 and he was 21. He still remembers everything about that encounter right on down to how Giovanna stood. That's strange. Even stranger is his insistence now there is a "different" eight years between himself and Giovanna than when she was a teenager. He sounds a little sad about it. Harry was more attracted to Giovanna when she was 13 because she seemed so much younger than him at the time. Now they are peers and the allure is gone.

Harry's attraction to young women wasn't a one-time thing. In fact, it seems to have gotten worse as he has gotten older. It's not only about sex, though that is an added benefit. It's more about the memories and sensations of youth these young women seem to unlock in him. The problem is "how to keep aloft in the radiant ether" after the girls are gone. Harry is well aware he means very little to these girls, and he understands the girl will think of him with nothing but contempt in the future. His mind tells him to send her back to her room untouched, but he can't help himself. He does it for the same reason he refuses to sell the crumbling farmhouse—he wants to relive the feelings of childlike happiness that are so elusive when one is an adult. Young women, valuable antiques, and beautiful art all imbue him with the sense of childlike happiness and wonder that is so elusive in adulthood.

It's important to note Harry isn't a predator in this situation, at least not in a strict sense. He sleeps with a girl decades younger than himself, but it is she, not he, who makes the sexual advances. She tantalizes him with stories about her illicit sex life, she asks him to her room, she takes off her clothes, and she outwardly shows no shame afterward. Her mother is also portrayed as a temptress, albeit a desperate one. Kate is at the opposite end of the spectrum, disdaining anything remotely sexual in nature. The women in "Like It or Not" all fit within one of two roles: the dowdy matron or unabashed seductress. None of Eisenberg's other female characters in Twilight of the Superheroes are cast in this light, which suggests "Like It or Not" is in part an exploration of the expectations for women in American society. They can be either chaste, dowdy matrons or unabashed seductresses. There's no in-between. As in the rest of her work, Eisenberg doesn't take a position in favor of or against these stereotypes—that's for the reader to decide. But their inclusion in the story indicates she thinks them worthy of contemplation. Eisenberg never tells her readers what to think or what they should have learned from her work, but instead suggests topics worthy of further examination.

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