In the introduction to this first (and only) collection by the late Mary Ladd Gavell, who died in 1967, the author's son calls her "something of an early feminist." And indeed, the women she writes about do share certain feelings of emptiness and longing, whether they're elicited by inattentive husbands, the empty-nest syndrome, or postpartum depression. In "The Infant," for example, Gavell's protagonist, Margaret, feels little of the conventional adoration a mother is supposed to feel for her newborn child: "She looked at the little gnomelike figure in her lap, and she thought, I suppose he'll be cute when he's two, and we shall be terribly proud of him and wouldn't be able to imagine life without him, but all I can think of now is that I wish we hadn't had him." So much for maternal warmth. Yet the author guides us so nonchalantly through Margaret's state of mind that it becomes impossible to judge her.
Elsewhere, Gavell is similarly revealing about the complexities of women, the hardships they endure, and the possibilities they have the potential to encounter. Yet this former managing editor of Psychiatry magazine seldom takes a rigidly feminist stance: she's more concerned with the psychological labyrinths of the human mind. It's a shame that these beautifully written stories--of which only one, "The Rotifer," has been published before--will constitute Gavell's entire literary legacy. All the more reason, then, to read and cherish them. --Yvonne Schindler
From Publishers Weekly
The story behind this collection is nearly as intriguing as the collection itself. The late Gavell was the managing editor of Psychiatry magazine and wrote stories, all unpublished, in her spare time. When she died at the age of 47 in 1967, the magazine published one of her stories "The Rotifer" as a tribute. The story was chosen for 1968's Best American Short Stories and then tabbed last year by John Updike for the Best American Short Stories of the Century, standing alongside those of Cather, Fitzgerald, Bellow, Carver and others. The 16 short fictions collected here prove that "The Rotifer" was no fluke; its easy complexity and sudden punch may remind readers of Alice Munro. Gavell's territory is that quintessential 1960s phenomenon, the nuclear family. With straightforward, cutting prose she unveils lives of elegant despair, much like Lorrie Moore, if Moore's characters were housewives who made appearances at the American Legion Hall. In "The Swing," an elderly woman is patiently sharing a house with an ailing husband. Their only son, emotionally reserved and uncommunicative, lives on the other side of town. One evening he walks into her backyard except that it's her son of 30 years earlier, a warm, enthusiastic seven-year-old boy. The denouement is a gentle surprise. Gavell demonstrates her range in "Sober, Exper., Work Guar.," in which she inhabits the unconsciously funny voice of a working-class plasterer plying his trade in an upper-class home. If anything dates these stories, it's that they feature neat endings, but many readers may find comfort in that now-rare style of short-story writing. Anthony Gavell's tribute to his mother and an introduction by Kaye Gibbons illuminate Gavell's qualities as a writer and as a woman of her times. Agent, David McCormick.
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