What a find! Have you read Edith Pearlman’s collection? For good writing you would do not better than read this generous collection of short stories, mentioned frequently last year in book-of-the-year lists. And a friend recommended it to me – thank you Marianne.
The virtues of the collection are extolled in the introduction by Ann Patchett (author of Bel Canto):
What you have in your hands now is a treasure, a book you could take to a desert island knowing that every time you got to the end you could simply turn to the front cover and start it all again. It is not a collection of bus crashes, junkie, and despair. Despair is much easier to write about than self-reliance. These stories are an exercise in imagination and compassion, a trip around the world, an example of what happens when talent meets discipline and a stunning intelligence. This collection offers a look at an artist at the height of her powers. Once you have read it, I hope you will go forth and spread the news. Edith Pearlman has been a secret much too long. (p11)
I have included it in the older women in fiction series for two reasons. First Edith Pearlman is an older woman writing fiction. She is 78 today. From the cover:
Edith Pearlman published her debut collection of stories in 1996, aged 60. She has published over 250 works of short fiction, to huge critical acclaim, and won numerous prizes including the National Book Critics Circle Award for Binocular Vision and the PEN/Malamud Award. (From the back cover of the Pushkin Press edition, 2011)
Second, the collection includes many characters who can be defined as older women. Here are 34 stories in 418 pages (about 12 pages per story); 13 of them under the heading of new stories. Most of the older women can be found in these newer stories.
Edith Pearlman’s stories, however, are not about older women specifically. They are populated by people of all kinds and ages: old and young, children, men and women, many of them from Jewish families, and many migrants. Several stories are set in Godolphin (a made-up suburb of Boston), but others take place in Europe, South America, Israel, Russia.
It is very refreshing to read stories that include older characters but are not necessarily about ageing. Or rather they are about ageing as much as they are about rubbing along together, loving people with all their faults, changing lives, and the impact of having children. Lonely people are befriended and lives are changed. A child has an insight into the adult world and takes another step into independence. In these stories, characters are caught in the everyday where nothing much out of the ordinary happens.
She is a very sharp writer, one with a generous view of humans, in all their failings and attempts to make good. Most of these stories are about the relationships between people. People who are displaced, perhaps, or from different generations, or who arrive in one circumstance and have to adjust.
Here is an older couple just beginning to accommodate to each other after a sudden and unlikely marriage in Elder Jinks:
They looked at each other for a while.
“I’m Grace,” she said after at last.
“I’m Gustave” – and how his heart leaped. “I’d like to . . . get to know you.”
Another long pause while he belatedly considered the dangers in so ambitious an enterprise, for he too would have to be known, and his shabby secrets revealed, and his out-of-date convictions as well. They’d endure necessary disappointments, and they’d practice necessary forgivenesses, careful to note which subjects left the other fraught. Grace’s mind moved along the same lines. Each elected to take the risk, Gustave showed his willingness by touching the lovely face, Grace hers by disdaining eclipsis. “Me too,” was all she said. (p385)
I don’t think it matters that eclipsis is a rare word. (It means the omission of parts of a word or sentence; more usually – ellipsis.) The import of this moment, which is in fact a reprise of an earlier exchange, is beautifully paced, as if they must both take a deep breath.
She includes details that, with minimal words, lead you to understand her characters. Consider the opening of Settlers:
One early Sunday morning Peter Loy stood waiting for the bus downtown. It was October and the wind was strong enough to ruffle the curbside litter and to make Peter’s coat flap about his knees, open and closed, open and closed. He wouldn’t have been sorry if the wind had removed the coat altogether, like a disapproving valet. It had been a mistake, this long glen-plaid garment with a capelet, suitable for some theatrical undergraduate not for an ex-schoolteacher of sixty-odd years. He had thought that with his height and thinness and longish hair he’d look like Sherlock Holmes when wearing it. Instead he looked like a dowager. (p40)
In just over 100 words, the reader quickly gains a visual image of Peter Loy, and something of his character.
She is also mistress of the sudden image like an unexpected jewel. Here’s Valerie Gordon, an older nannie in the park in Vallies:
British au pairs avoided her as if she were a headmistress. Scandinavians smiled at her as if she were a pet. The mommies – there were some of these, too, unmannerly – ignored her entirely: they were too busy boasting about their children as if someday they meant to sell them. (p389)
Woah! And from The Little Wife:
… awake as if she had been smacked … (p292)
Explore these wonderful stories yourself. You can hear her reading The Story on the Pushkin Press website. For an insightful review of the connections between her stories see Andrea Nolan’s review on Fiction Writers Review Blog.
Have you read Binocular Vision? How did you react? What did you think of the older women in her stories?
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