My first encounter
with Margaret Drabble occurred in a British Women Writer’s class at Rowan
University and again in graduate school.
We read a few of her novels as well as several by her sister, A.S.
Byatt. A rift developed between the two
sisters, because of biographical elements in their books. They do not read each other’s novels. Drabble describes the situation as “normal
sibling rivalry,” Byatt says the rift has been exaggerated by gossip. She claims the sisters have always liked each
other (Wikipedia). Drabble has written
19 novels, and Byatt has authored 11 novels, 5 short story collections, and 7
miscellaneous works of non-fiction.
Working through all these books will eat up a lot of my retirement. Drabble has also written a number of short
stories. I never knew she wrote short
fiction until now.
A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman claims to include her complete short
stories. An introduction to the
collection by José Francisco Fernández says, these “are fine examples of
well-made stories: neatly constructed, carefully contextualized, focused,
unified in tone, elegantly climactic, at times tinged with the seriousness of a
moral dilemma” (ix). I loved these
stories, and it is one of those exceedingly rare books that provoked me into a
second reading beginning the moment I finished the first read. Four of the stories are, writes Fernández, “representative
cases of the woman who has to divide her time between her duties at home and
the demands of a job […] a husband and children” (xii).
The later stories,
“The Merry Widow,” “The Dower House at Kellynch: A Somerset Romance,” The Caves
of God,” and “Stepping Westward: A Topographical Tale” all describe woman later
in their lives when they are free of a husband, family, and work. As I said, I loved them all, but these four
were undoubtedly my favorites—a “best of the best” if you will. I also credit these four stories as my
impetus for an immediate rereading.
In the first of this
“final four,” stories, “Merry Widow,” Drabble writes, “When Philip died, his
friends and colleagues assumed that Elsa would cancel the holiday. Elsa knew this would be their
assumption. But she had no intention of
canceling. She was determined upon the
holiday. During Philip’s unexpectedly
sudden last hours, and in the succeeding weeks of funeral and condolence and
letters from banks and solicitors, it began to take an increasingly powerful
hold upon her imagination. If she were
honest with herself, which she tried to be, she had not been looking forward to
the holiday while Philip was alive: it would have been yet another dutifully
endured, frustrating, saddening attempt at reviving past pleasures,
overshadowed by Philip’s increasing ill-health and ill-temper. But without Philip, the prospect brightened”
(151). I hope this tidbit will draw you
to either--or both--of these exceptionally talented women.
All of the works of
these two amazing women writers are interesting and powerful stories. I have read a few of the novels by each
woman, and finishing them off will be a large part of my sunset days. If you want to lose yourself in reading of
the lives of these women in the late 20th and early 21st
century, you could not find a better start than Margaret Drabbles A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman. 5
Last year I read
Nina George’s wonderful novel, The Little
Paris Bookshop, which was her first novel translated into English. She had written some 40 books, and was
considered an international sensation—except in the US where she was virtually
unknown. Now she has released her second
novel, The Little French Bistro. This novel is quite different from Bookshop, but I thoroughly enjoyed
it. I can’t wait for another.
Based on Paris Bookshop, I made several
assumptions which proved to be false.
First, Nina George is not French; she is German. I met her at a book reading in Book People in
Austin Texas recently and learned she was born in Germany and still lives there
with her husband. Bookshop was not her first novel, but rather somewhere in an oeuvre
of over 40 books. She proved to be
gracious and funny as she slipped back and forth among German, French, and
English. After the reading, she signed
my books, and hugged every reader who wanted one.
Marianne Messmann is
married to Lothar, a man with no sense of romance and a thoroughly unpleasant
personality. They have been married for
about forty years, and Marianne has reached a breaking point. George opens the novel with a chilling scene.
She writes, “It was the first decision
she had ever made on her own, the very first time she was able to determine the
course of her life. // Marianne decided to die.
Here and now, down below in the waters of the Seine, late on this grey
day. On her trip to Paris. […] The water
was cool, black and silky. The Seine
would carry her on a quiet bed of freedom to the sea. Tears ran down her cheeks; strings of salty
tears. Marianne was smiling and weeping
at the same time. Never before had she
felt so light, so free, so happy” (1). A
homeless man rescues her, and she is taken to a hospital to contact her
husband. She then dresses and escapes on
a train headed to a remote corner of northwestern France. All the while on this trip, she plans to
reattempt her suicide off the coast of Brittany.
A group of nuns give
her a ride to the little fishing village of Kerdruc. She meets a number of the residents, who
welcome her with open hearts. Each day
she resolves to jump into the sea, but she delays a day, then another, and another. She gets a job working at a bistro then
gradually she is absorbed into the community.
Marianne begins to devise an entirely new life for herself. Then Lothar shows up, and everything is
threatened. I won’t spoil the ending,
but it is worth following Marianne to one of three possible conclusions.
Marianne is an
empathetic woman. George writes, “She
took a deep breath, carefully picked up the crab and set it down on the
polished steel table. It scrambled
around a bit as she searched among the bottles on the sideboard before reaching
for the cider vinegar and pouring a few drops into the creature’s mouth. The clatter of its pincers on the steel
surface grew fainter before suddenly ceasing altogether. // ‘This may sound
odd, but you can kill humanely too,’ […] ‘Vinegar sends them to sleep, you
know.’ She cupped her hands to her
cheeks, cocked her head and closed her eyes, then lowered the crab into the
boiling water.’ ‘It’s bath time. See, it doesn’t hurt so much’” (85-86).
Nina George has
written a love story like few others in The
Little French Bistro. Kerdruc is a
mythical place like no others. I can
only hope another novel will soon appear by this talented, funny, and
interesting writer. 5 Stars.
Karen Joy Fowler has
authored six novels and three short story collections. She has won a Pen/Faulkner award among
numerous other prizes. Fowler has two
children, and seven grandchildren. She
lives in Santa Cruz, California. In We are All Completely Beside Our Selves,
she has penned a book at once
curious, frightening, sad, and comical.
The is the tale of the Cooke family: the father, Vincent, is a
psychiatrist, and his wife, and the children Lowell, Rosemary, and Fern. The last two were raised together, until Fern
was “sent away.”
The novel is
narrated by Rosemary, “sister” to Fern.
She begins the story “in medias res,” so I will do likewise. Fowler writes, “So the middle of my story comes
in the winter of 1996. By then, we’d
long since dwindled to the family that old home movie foreshadowed—me, my
mother, and unseen but evident behind the camera, my father. In 1996, ten years had passed since I’d last
seen my brother, seventeen since my sister disappeared. The middle of my story is all about their
absence, though if I hadn’t told you that, you might not have known. By 1996, whole days went by in which I hardly
thought of either one. […] I was twenty-two years old, meandering through my
fifth year at the University of California, Davis, and still maybe only a
junior or maybe a senior, but so thoroughly uninterested in the niceties of
units or requirements or degrees that I wouldn’t be graduating anytime
soon. My education, my father liked to
point out, was wider than it was deep.
He said this often” (5-6).
seems to be a persistent topic for family discussion. Karen writes, “Mom had a theory I heard
through the bedroom wall. You didn’t
need a lot of friends to get through school, she told Dad, but you had to have
one. For a brief period in the third grade, I pretended that Dae-jung
and I were friends. He didn’t talk, but
I was well able to supply both sides of the conversation. I returned a mitten he’d dropped. We ate lunch together, or at least we ate at
the same table, and in the classroom he’d been given the desk next to mine on
the theory that when I talked out of turn, it might help his language
acquisition. The irony was that his
English improved due in no small part to my constant yakking at him, but as
soon as he could speak, he made other friends.
Our connection was beautiful, but brief” (113).
Fowler has laid a
series of less than obvious clues regarding an ending which will offer the
reader something between shock and amusement.
How a reader places the clues determines where a reader begins to
assemble these clues. One peculiar item
is the lack of a name for the mother. I
usually note names of important characters, and in beginning this review, I
realized I had none for her. I sped
through the book from page one to the end, and never saw her referred to as anything
except Mom or mother. Very
annoying! I hereby give her the
daughter’s name, Rosemary.
We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler is a tragic story
difficult for animal lovers to read. The
only saving grace is the end of most chimpanzee experiments, and serious
curtailing of test on other mammals. 5
confession. Back in 1986, or
thereabouts. I learned of a lecture by Ann Beattie—at the time my number two
most favorite writer—at Rutgers-Camden.
I tried to get a ticket, but found it was sold out. So I devised a plan to see her before the
lecture. I convinced a guard I was a
stringer for a local paper in Philly who wanted to snag a few comments before
her talk. I had three of Beattie’s books
with me, and after asking a few questions, I took the books out of a bag and
asked her to inscribe them. She
graciously signed all three. I did write
a brief article, and I did send it to the paper, but it was never printed. I resolved to tell her in person if I ever
met up with her. This might be as close
as I get.
Ann Beattie has been
included in four O. Henry Award collections, John Updike’s Best American Short Stories of the Century and Jennifer Egan’s Best Short Stories of 2014. She has also captured numerous other
awards. Her latest book, The Accomplished Guest is a collection
of short stories with a variety of themes, voices, and situations.
Some of these
visitors had interesting experiences getting to their destination. In “The Indian Uprising,” Beattie wrote, “I
took the train. It wasn’t difficult. I got a ride with a friend to some branch of
the Metro going into Washington and rode into Union Station. Then I walked forever down the train track to
a car someone finally let me on. I felt
like an ant that had walked the length of a caterpillar’s body and ended up at
its anus. I sat across from a mother with
a small son whose head she abused any time she got bored looking out the
window: swatting it with plush toys; rearranging his curls; inspecting him for
nits” (4-5). One of the most appealing
traits of a Beattie story is the attention to details. Readers can easily place themselves in the
In “The Astonished
Woodchopper,” Beattie explores those ubiquitous “little white lies” we all
tell. She writes, “John had asked Jen
not to tell Bee the details of his surgery, but of course she had—no doubt also
cautioning Bee to lie if he asked her directly what she knew. White lies: as prevalent in this family as
white noise on the highway that drifted across the meadow toward their
house. He had wanted a more secluded
house; Jen had said she like to be nearer to what she called ‘civilization’—the
same environment she now damned as being filled with ‘idiot tourists and
Maine-iacs in their tortoise shell SUVs, driving lunatics because they can
imagine because they can’t imagine they go belly-up.’ Just the week before, a man had died, not at
all protected by his SUV as it rolled” (51).
These stories have
lots of fun and page upon page of humor.
I really think Ann Beattie is an author who deserves much more
attention. The Accomplished Guest is a grand beginning for many years of
reading pleasure. 5 Stars