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Come Back Irish Paperback – January 1, 2002
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In each of these stories the protagonist is asked to respond to a world which she has no "control" over; a world which often feels like a foreign country. In "Heteroworld" the main character learns that her mother is gay and the story examines her reaction to this new and complex reality. A young girl in "Lily's the Maid" bears witness to domestic violence and then looks back on it years later with a more mature perspective. Other characters cope with pregnancy, mysterious rashes, abortion and cancer, and yet, far from being depressing, Rawlings' characters meet these universal travails with both humor and startling insights. There is, for instance, this great line on growing older: "Each of them was rubbing baby oil on her own belly, her mother in the ashamed, self-conscious way Gretchen would later recognize as the way of most adult women."
Two of my favorite stories are "Lovely" and "Acetate." Both deal with women learning to get by in what remains largely a man's world. On the surface "Acetate" is the story of a relationship gone awry and an abortion. Nell gets pregnant and her boyfriend Drummond moves away soon after her abortion. Even as the narrator (Nell's bestfriend) studies for a "Women's Studies" midterm about the birth control dilemmas of women in Tudor England, she is witnessing a parallel scenario unfold for Nell as she comes to terms with her own unwanted pregnancy. We are left to ask ourselves how much has really changed for women today?
"Lovely" is the story of a young woman's odyssey through Ireland where she meets several men, all of whom want something from her but offer her nothing meaningful in return. At one point a woodcarver draws a picture of a mountain range. The protagonist says, "He meant for me to see that they were a woman's breasts and womb." But in the end she decides, "They did not look like a women at all." Most of the time in Rawlings' stories, the men get it wrong, but the women eventually find their way despite them.
In most of these stories, living is like traveling through a foreign country. Just like a tourist we watch the world unfold around us. Most of what happens to us; happens to us. We may "exist sadly" or not, but everything depends on how well we handle the fact that we are not in control.
In many cases, neither the narrator or author of these stories can claim to know the world and try instead to see the world beyond what we always know. For example, in "Heteroworld,"the narrator learns her mother's a lesbian and tries as best she can to try to conceive what her mother's world is like. In "Pregnancy Scares," the protagonist, Meg, while purchasing and using a pregnancy test recalls the other times she had to check to see if she was pregnant. The only guidance she can find is the text and the directions of the pregnancy test itself. In the title story, while visiting her boyfriend's home town in Ireland, Beth, the protagonist tries to learn Irish while the text of the narration has its odd perceptions, almost abrupt syntax that seems to mimic the struggle of not only learning a very different culture, but a different language, a different perception of the world.
This collection of short stories demonstrates the potential of a woman writer who will probably throw new, abrupting yet essential conceptions to the literary world. The only drawback may be that some of the story's situations may seem too similar-- there may be too many stories of a Queens-raised Jewish girl dating an older Irish gentleman, for example. However, these stories attempt to dialogue one another and demonstrate like in Virginia Woolf's novels, characters that sometimes share enough common traits and perceptions to render the general human perceptions, especially the perceptions of young women, in general. In fact, this collection of short stories is in some ways like a collection of poems, loosely related but exploring deeper the nature of the issues/feelings/nature of existence in hand, where growth and revelation become more apparent not by one story but the group, and where the ending of one story is simply a riddle to only be further probed in the next story.
There is a whole originality to her voice that is reminiscent of Ann Beattie, Alice Munro, Eudora Welty, and others, but it is in no way derivative. Ms. Rawlings can compress her words so they pack a punch of epiphany and she can paint a picture in a scene that can break your heart. Turn to any page randomly and you'll find little jewels (my other test of good fiction) of prose, character, and pure story.
If you want a read that you will take with you to your job, infiltrate your everyday conversations, that you will read to your girlfriend or boyfriend, husband, wife, or lover, here is the stuff that great writing careers start with. Welcome, Wendy Rawlings. We're gonna come back again and again!
Rawlings voice is confident and wry as she weaves together the many themes and characters found in this smart, sharp, lovely, funny book.