December 14, 1987 12:00 PM

The word began spreading last spring at the annual American Bookseller’s Association convention: There was a stunning new novel dealing with—would you believe?—menopause. The author, Barbara Raskin, was being touted as the new high priestess of the postfeminist novel. Hot Flashes, her tale of four smart, well-bred and sexually kinetic women in their late 40s, was being hailed as a landmark women’s novel, something akin to Mary McCarthy’s The Group in the ’50s and Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room in the ’70s.

Raskin’s characters are generally tough, sharp-tongued women who talk openly about their sexual escapades, yet have an old-fashioned dependence upon the men in their lives. As the novel opens, three of them are gathered for the funeral of the fourth. Their “hot flashes” are not only biological but are descriptive of their barbed reminiscences. The publisher, St. Martin’s Press, ordered an impressive 200,000 pressrun, and the Book-of-the Month Club picked up Hot Flashesas an alternate selection. Then Raskin, a 52-year-old grandmother, began anxiously waiting for the book to appear.

Now she can relax. Hot Flashes finally hit the bookstores this fall, and it has been on the New York Times best-seller lists for nine weeks. Richard Benjamin grabbed the movie rights for $450,000, and reviewers have not been unkind. “You don’t have to suffer the hot flashes of menopause to appreciate the flashes of insight the characters experience,” said Cosmopolitan’s Louise Bernikow, and the Washington Post reported somewhat ambiguously that the author “has done for menopause what Philip Roth did for masturbation [in Portnoy’s Complaint].”

At the very least Raskin has captured the feelings of a generation of well-educated, frustrated women who raised their children in the ’60s while their husbands made it in the corporate world. “If we had just had a better sense of ourselves,” says Raskin, “there wouldn’t have been so much damage to our egos over how much damn starch got put in the shirts.”

Though Raskin claims Hot Flashesls a “collation and collection” of stories she has heard over the years, there are shades of the smart, sometimes-confused and rebellious author herself in the characters she creates. Barbara Bellman grew up in Minneapolis, the daughter of a criminal lawyer. Like one of her heroines, Raskin was “gifted and spoiled,” she says, and was pushed by her father to excel as a student and a writer. She sold her first story, “Shoes Come in Pairs,” to Seventeen at 12. She graduated from high school at 16 and entered the University of Minnesota. Earning her degree in 2½ years, she went on to graduate school in English at the University of Chicago, then took a part-time job as a stewardess. “In 1955 that was like joining a brothel,” she says with a laugh. “My mother didn’t tell anyone in the family.”

By the time she was 21, Barbara had written her first novel (still unpublished) and married a fellow student, Marcus Raskin. The couple settled in Washington, D.C., where Marcus worked as a congressional aide, later moving to the Kennedy White House as assistant to National Security adviser McGeorge Bundy.

Barbara soon learned that life wouldn’t be as easy for a woman writer in Washington. “I went to the Washington Post and asked if I could be a copy-boy,” she remembers. “A very nice man said, ‘No, young lady, we don’t take girls.’ ” So Raskin took several typing jobs before being accepted as a Ph.D. candidate in literature at Catholic University.

Over the years Marcus’ leftist politics had distanced him from the Kennedy White House, and he quit to work for the Bureau of the Budget. He and Barbara gradually became known as one of Washington’s first couples of political activism, and their town house was transformed into a meeting place and crash pad for members of the civil rights and antiwar movements. “In the underground railroad, this was a station,” says Barbara. “It was heady. It was also exhausting. I fed people all the time. I was proud to be of service, but I was one worn-out woman. Sometimes I would go to the basement at 2 a.m. and put my head down and weep.”

In 1963 Marcus left government to become a co-founder of the Institute for Policy Studies, a liberal think tank. Five years later he was arrested along with Benjamin Spock and William Sloane Coffin for conspiring to encourage draft violations. Raskin was acquitted, and soon afterward he and Barbara separated. “That trial was a terrible test of one’s character and of our marriage,” she says. “There was tremendous public focus on one partner, and the other was suffering all the same injuries without any of the attention.” The Raskins reconciled in 1971 but divorced in 1979.

Three years later a friend fixed Barbara up with Tony Shub, then a Post correspondent. They married in 1983, and Barbara began work in earnest on Hot Flashes. “I had a really rough time after my divorce,” she explains. “But when I met Tony, I began to have human feelings again. I also had some insight into friendship. There was the beginning of an old girl network. I realized I was part of a generation.”

So did Raskin’s agent, who sent the partially finished manuscript to seven women editors of a certain age. All of them bid on the book, and Raskin received a $150,000 advance. Her next book should command even more. “It took me nearly 50 years to have some sense of myself in a larger context,” Raskin says. “I had gained an understanding that what had happened to me was not unique, that I was not just suffering by myself. I no longer felt isolated. And that was liberating, ennobling and enriching.”

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