Summer days are longer but my reading time seems shorter. (By the way, that's not me in the gold lamé bikini. I still read hard-bounds, not e-books.) As long as its daylight, I seem unable to pick up a book. What to do? Against my usual reading patterns, I've been sampling short stories--or at least stacking them on my nightstand. Over the weekend, I dipped into The Empty Family, a collection from Irish writer Colm Toibin. I fell in love with Toibin last year after reading Brooklyn, a quietly profound coming of age story that's not much longer than a long short story.
In this new collection, Toibin writes masterfully about the fragility and vulnerability of family relationships and the secrets we keep and the lies we tell to preserve them. "The Colours of Shadows", for example, recounts the deathbed promise a nephew tells his aged aunt who took him in as a child when his mother abandoned him, a promise forged in love and loyalty and one that he will not keep. In "The New Spain", a prodigal daughter returns to her childhood summerhouse after a decade in exile and finds the family she left no longer her family and herself a stranger in her strange homeland. Alone and estranged, the family fireworks behind her, she feels not turmoil but peace. Writes Toibin: "As she raised the glass of cold beer to her lips, she felt a contentment that she had never expected to feel, an ease that she had believed would never come her way." Toibin’s gift is that he brings into the open the ambivalent feelings we hide and the desires, longings and loneliness we feel about our families. The Empty Family fueled the realization that even the shortest story can be long on truth, potent and enduring despite its length.
Also on my nightstand are two more short story collections: one from a relatively new author--Carolyn Cooke--and the other from a long established one--Margaret Drabble. I finished Carolyn Cooke's first novel Daughters of The Revolution ironically on Father's Day this year. The book's protagonists are fatherless daughters, the setting the environs of a New England prep school, and the time the 1960s, an era of tumultuous social change. I loved Cooke's insights and often loved her writing but I can't say I loved the book. It read more like connected short stores than a fully developed novel. But there was talent there so I bought her debut book, a collection of short stories titled The Bostons. This little gem deservedly won the O. Henry Award, the LA Times Book of the Year and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year commendation.
Margaret Drabble is no stranger to awards. With 17 novels and numerous other contributions to English literature over the past half-century, Drabble was made Dame of the British Empire in 2008. But she is hardly known for her short form fiction though she has practiced it throughout her career. A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman (do you not love the title?) is her complete collection. In a homage to the writer and the stories, Joyce Carol Oates wrote in a recent New Yorker review:
Read chronologically, these fourteen stories move from youthful, romantic yearnings and adulterous nostalgia to middle-aged disillusion with marriage and the freedom of the older, independent woman. There’s an ironic cast to Drabble’s calculatedly “happy” endings that suggests a perspective not unlike Jane Austen’s. The most gripping story in the collection is the title story, an intimate account of a beautiful, accomplished wife and mother whose husband’s love dwindles in proportion to her success in broadcast television. In Drabble’s hands, this demoralizing anti-epiphany becomes a moment of liberating self-realization, one that will leave the “smiling woman” forever changed.
Tonight when the sun goes down, I am going to meet Dame Drabble if only for a little while.