Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Starting Over by Elizabeth Spencer

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

I have always enjoyed short stories, as regular readers of this blog would know. My inaugural book post on Facebook, before I moved to a regular blog, was a review of a collection of Isaac Bashevis Singer stories, in fact. That review was the first time I went beyond a few sentences since my school days.

For those who share my love of short stories, here are some other reviews of collections I have enjoyed since starting this blog.

A Curtain of Green by Eudora Welty
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
The Moons of Jupiter by Alice Munro
Short Stories and Sketches by Sarah Orne Jewett
Sevastopol Sketches by Leo Tolstoy

There is something about the short story that continues to draw me. After four years of blogging, I still find it difficult to distill my thoughts into a small space. For a short story to be successful, it must not merely distill a thought, but an entire world, an entire web of relationships, and at least a handful of distinct personalities into a remarkably few words. Authors that succeed draw one into that world and make it real, while those who fail never quite bring things to life. It is maddeningly difficult. I wrote a few stories for my high school classes, and they were awful. (I didn’t bother to keep them.) I’m not particularly original or creative to begin with - my skills, such as they are, lie with synthesis, not genesis. But even when I had an idea, it became clear early on that bringing it to life was far from simple. Thus, I have a lot of respect for those who can in fact do it. 

But about this author and book. Elizabeth Spencer has been writing since the 1940s. She is a southern american author, and thus is a link in the chain that includes Eudora Welty (who championed her writing) and the unforgettable Flannery O’Connor. While clearly in this tradition, these stories are also recognizably modern.

I put this one on my list of potential books, but ended up selecting it almost by chance. I had a bit of time come free at the end of the workday, and decided to stop by the library to find a few books that I could bring on vacation with me. Since it is a smaller branch location that is on my way home, I was limited to whatever they had on hand from my list. This was somewhere rather far down, but it was checked in, so there you have it.

This particular collection is interesting for a number of reasons. First, it is a very recent book. Published in 2014, in fact, it came to my attention quite recently. Spencer had been writing for decades, but took a hiatus - perhaps originally intended as retirement - in 2001. After all, she was at that time 80 years old. So, for her to come out with an entirely new collection at 94 is nothing short of remarkable. In fact, I rather glossed over the dates until after I had read it, and realized just how old she was. I would never have known it from the stories, which do not read like those of someone in the winter of life. I might have guess late middle age, perhaps, as most of the stories are about families where the children have left the nest and are either in college or in first jobs. The narrators are typically in the age 30 to 50 range. From what I can tell, Spencer returned to writing after the death of her beloved husband, perhaps needing a distraction from her grief. Whatever the reason, these stories show the craft of someone who hasn’t lost her game. 

The second thing that struck me is how well Spencer writes from different points of view. Throughout the nine stories, she uses a whole host of perspectives. Some stories are told from the viewpoint of men, some from women. Sometimes the perspective is that of an older generation, sometimes that of the younger. Relationships are at the heart of the stories, and Spencer shows her insight into human nature by her ability to convincingly get inside the heads of a variety of recognizable characters.

I can’t help but think of some contrasts with other similar writers. Spencer is, despite the geographical linkage, of a different generation than Welty and O’Connor. The characters and situations (at least in this book) are from the 1980s or later, and, as such, the attitudes and conflicts are different. Just as a minor example that stood out: the fear of interracial marriage is a plot point in two of the stories, but the issue is referred to obliquely, even by the older generation, because of the change in attitudes even in the South.

Another author that comes to mind is, of course, Alice Munro. Like Munro, Spencer focuses on the relationships between the characters, rather than the action. Unlike Munro, Spencer tends to come to a resolution rather than an internal epiphany, but even this distinction is perhaps too overstated. Both are masters of the internal dialogue and the palpable discomfort of human relationships. Of the various authors I have read in the last couple of years, I would list these two as the ones that I would pick to write about my own family gatherings. Although I may well fear that their gentle honesty may not be flattering to me. One difference might be that Munro rarely writes from the male point of view, while Spencer is admirably comfortable and fluent writing from that perspective.

Spencer has two focuses in this book. The first is on intergenerational relationships, particularly those between adult - or near adult - children and their parents. The second is on the relationships between former spouses or partners. These relationships are so recognizable, and so real. I can almost give a name and face to some of Spencer’s characters.

I was pleasantly surprised to note that a number of the stories involve a special or growing bond between father and daughter. Sometimes, modern fiction tends to be hard on men. Often, we deserve it. But Spencer paints some beautiful pictures of flawed men, unsure of themselves, nevertheless finding some point of commonality with daughters who are trying to find their way through a damaged or broken family.

One story that stood out, not exactly as the best story, but as memorable is “Return Trip.” It involves a question of paternity, but even more of temperament and bonding with a difficult and incompatible child. What ultimately is the source of a solid adult relationship? Blood? Personality? It may be a question every parent who has a child vastly different in personality may ask.

There were a few great lines that I had to write down. First is one in “On The Hill,” a story that eventually took a really dark turn. However, in the middle, one of the characters describes her husband, who is strongly introverted, and would rather stay at home and listen to opera or Broadway musicals rather than go to social events.

Once in the middle of gossip about local sexual affairs, how everybody wondered whose marriage would be next - she brought out that she was safe until Aida showed up.

Perhaps nobody but we classical musicians and aficionados  find this amusing.

The other line that I laughed at was in the final story, “The Wedding Visitor.” The narrator is a political operator, working for candidates. He returns to his hometown for a wedding involving his cousin. The family is horribly dysfunctional, and he ends up caught in the middle, asked to keep secrets by just about everyone.

Rob promised, reflecting that everyone so far, excepting Emily, had asked him not to tell something. It was as bad as politics.

Spencer understates this, of course, as poor Rob ends up using his political savvy to smooth everything over at least enough to get the couple hitched - although, like politics, he isn’t sure he did the best thing.

All told, this was a worthwhile collection of stories, the more surprising because I wasn’t familiar with Spencer before I read it. Like the best writers of short stories, she has a keen insight into human psychology, combined with a sympathy toward all her characters. There is a delightfully humanity to each story, and the complexities of life are well drawn.

Small World Note:

Elizabeth Spencer is the cousin once removed of senator and erstwhile presidential candidate John McCain. I had no idea about this until I was researching Spencer’s biographical information after reading the book. Neither of them name drops the other, so it isn’t common knowledge, apparently.

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