The Woman Who Wouldn’t

Written by Gene Wilder
Review by Susanne Dunlap

Jeremy Spencer Webb, a concert violinist who takes leave of his senses during a performance, finds himself at a spa somewhere in Bavaria where he has gone for a rest cure following his hospitalization in the U.S. While there, he meets a mysteriously beautiful girl (the one who wouldn’t), who is suffering from terminal cancer.

The violinist, who doesn’t really understand what made him behave so peculiarly as to pour water into the bell of the tuba while the tuba player was performing, somewhat absurdly meets Anton Chekhov at the watering hole, as well as an avuncular doctor who has both Webb and the cancer victim in his care.

One thing leads to another, and Webb seduces the young woman, who is apparently immune to the moral code of the day, and whose shocking behavior is uncharacteristically condoned by her doctor. He eventually reaches an understanding of his temporary insanity, and falls madly in love with the woman. The results should be surprising, but instead they are completely unbelievable.

In this his second novel, Wilder evokes Chekhov frequently, both in the spareness of his style and in the length of the book—an extremely short 167 pages. Unfortunately, Wilder’s ability as a writer does not approach Chekhov. In his hands, spareness turns to childishness. I thought for a while this was a children’s fable until the clumsily described sex scenes. Wilder’s ability as a writer of historical fiction is all but nonexistent. The dialog reads more like a Gene Wilder film than anything plausibly set at the turn of the 20th century, and jarring anachronisms abound. Altogether, the novella left me wondering if it would ever have had a chance of being published if its author were not a famous actor. Viewed as a curiosity—and given it takes little time to read and very little space on a bookshelf—there may be some who would want to read this book.