London: Jonathan Cape, c1985.
This is a short story collection that I've had on the shelf and the TBR for a very long time. I finally finished it, with great admiration for Mavis Gallant and the urge to read every other book of hers that I currently own. She is wonderful.
This book is a collection of stories about young women, mostly -- young Canadian women at home or abroad, in situations that they have to adjust themselves to. Many times in various stories, Gallant refers to the Canadian habit of reserve, of even perhaps stuffiness. I think the idea of Canadians and being Canadian has changed since the decades that Gallant wrote these stories, at least from an internal point of view -- I don't know how others still see us!
In any case, these are stories of relationships, between mothers and daughters, female friends, or women and the wider world. They are all immensely readable, absorbing my attention completely. The first section, At Home, reveals young girls encountering the strangeness of the world, all set in Canada. I liked these, but was much more engaged by part two, Canadians Abroad - there was something about the newness of Europe and the characters' reactions to it that I found appealing.
The last section of the book is made up of six Linnet Muir stories; Linnet is a fictional stand-in for Gallant herself, having many of the same experiences, from working at a newspaper from a young age, as the only woman not in the typing pool, to travelling and seeing opportunities for herself different from those that most women expected in their lives at that time (around the early 40s).
I enjoy Gallant's writing more than Alice Munro's -- the stories don't feel as constricted to me, they hold a little more life and movement -- but perhaps that's because I identify more with Gallant's wanderlust and ambition than with Munro's small rural circles. Gallant delves into the personalities of diplomats or regular North Americans abroad, the petty power struggles in their own small circles; she looks at how sheltered young women have to face both being alone in Europe and the challenge to their constricted vision of life.
This is especially evident in one of my favourite stories in the book, The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street. Agnes Brusen has an office job in Geneva, but she's serious and out of her depth with the casual flippancy of her fellow expats. They tease her at one point about being Norwegian - she explains that she went to visit cousins at one time, but they lived poorly, in a house that must have been 200 years old - her family had just built a new house with a bathroom and two toilets! And she ends the conversation firmly: "I'm from Saskatchewan." she said. "I'm not from anywhere else."
One more quote to give you a taste: this story is Virus X -- Charlotte Maria (Lottie) arrives in Paris to work for a year. Lottie eventually meets a girl from her hometown of Winnipeg, but she notes that Vera looks "hunkie" - a slur against Vera's Ukrainian background, which comes up again and again. While I found this prejudiced me a little against Lottie, this story is still a great one. It begins --
A bunch of holly hanging upside down at the entrance to her hotel was the first thing Lottie Benz saw in all of Paris that seemed right to her... Lottie, whose mother had made the dress she was wearing from a Vogue pattern, could have filled the back seat of her taxi with polka dots, the skirt was so wide. Stepping down, she shook order into the polka dots and her mother's ankle-length Persian-lamb coat, lent for the voyage. That was when she saw the holly. Even as the taxi-driver plucked every bit of change from her outstretched hand, she turned to this one familiar thing. A city that knew about holly would know about Christmas, true winter, everything.
If you haven't yet encountered Mavis Gallant, I encourage you to give her a try. Such great stories, and I'm glad I have more ahead to read for the first time.