Stories Of Women On The Outside Looking In
There are women in the world with perfect exteriors — their hair done just so, their manicures never chipped, their voices soft and silky and never saying the wrong thing. These are not the women who populate Mavis Gallant's short stories. As she writes in the titular "The Cost of Living": "Think of draggled laces, sagging hems, ribbons undone." Gallant's heroines are the awkward, the hopeless, the immature, the ones on the outside of womanhood looking in.
Gallant knows a thing or two about displacement. After a brief marriage, she left her native Canada for Paris in 1950 and has remained there ever since. Many of the portraits in The Cost of Living: Early and Uncollected Stories capture girls and women out of their element. Gallant's heroines know that expatriation may bring a feeling of liberation, but also a gnawing loneliness and disorientation. The two Australian sisters in the title story live in France, a country so foreign to them that even the sun — that "cold red sun" hanging briefly in the sky "like a malediction" — seems unfamiliar.
In the stellar "Autumn Day," the young Cecilia follows her military husband to Salzburg and finds herself lagging behind him in adapting to the new world. He has friends already in place, and she is shocked to discover he's acquainted with the language. "I didn't know until that minute that he read German. ... It wasn't important after all, you don't say to your wife, 'Hey, I read German.' " Having lost her bearings and realizing she barely knows her own husband, Cecilia pins all of her hopes on the possibility of befriending the woman upstairs, who she cannot see but can hear singing. She imagines her as glamorous and perfect, a friend who will better her simply by association.
A frequent contributor to the New Yorker, Gallant has, over a long career, deftly documented women on the boundaries between childhood and adulthood, between their native home and their adopted home. As such, it's fitting that the stories in The Cost of Living are mostly strays and tales left out of the 1996 volume The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant, including her first-ever published piece, "Madeline's Birthday" from 1951. It's about time they've been brought in from the cold and seated snugly on your bedroom nightstand.
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