Book Quote:

“Her face had only one expression, and she used it to conceal the two major emotions of her life, resentment and love. They were so violently opposed, these passions, that she could not move from one to the other; she lacked flexibility; so she inhabited a grim inexpressive no-man’s-land between them, feeling in some way that she thus achieved a kind of justice.”

Book Review:

Review by Bonnie Brody  (MAY 26, 2011)

Margaret Drabble is a well-known English novelist. I have read several of her books and have always enjoyed them. I had no idea that she was also a writer of short stories. A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman is the first compilation of her stories that has ever been published. They are presented in chronological order beginning in 1964 and ending in 2000. Like her novels, these stories often deal with the plight of women in their times, the socio-cultural aspects of marriage, and the difficulties that women find themselves in while trying to both raise a family and be successful in the business world. The stories are distinctively English;  the countryside of England as well as the urban landscapes are vivid throughout. There is a span of thirty-six years between the first short story and the last, giving the themes a relatively large period of time in which to develop.

The first story is entititled “Les Liaisons Dangereuses.” Humphrey had met a man at a pub who invited him to a party and when he came to the door, the host acted like he didn’t even know him. “It was the kind of party at which nobody got introduced.” The party was comprised of clusters of people who all seemed to know one another and the conversations that Humphrey overheard were artistic and intellectual. Humphrey knew no one and no one tried to make his acquaintance. Humphrey sets his sights on a long-haired red-headed woman who is waxing pontifically to a group gathered around her. He never knew if it was accident or inspiration that caused him to set her hair on fire but this act gained him exalted entrance to the entourage.

In “A Voyage to Cythera” we watch Helen who loves to travel. Whether it’s 30 miles or to another country, traveling is Helen’s gift in life. She likes the feeling of moving, be it in a car, train, or plane. Traveling opens a new world for her – one of possible intimacy, adventure and the potential of becoming someone other than the lonely, bland person she is.

In “A Pyrrhic Victory,” a young woman is adventuring with three others, trying to be what they want her to be. She represses her own needs and expectations. She finds herself taking on the weight and pain of acting according to what others want rather than risk being herself and seeming uncool or gauche.

“Crossing the Alps” is about two lovers who work together and are having an illicit affair. They are planning to travel from England to Yugosolavia. He comes down with a bad cold and sees her strengths and abilities as she cares for him. It is impossible for them to be together outside this week’s vacation as he is married. He has a lot of difficulty understanding her strength and resourcefulness in the face of her difficult life.

“The Gifts of War” is about a woman who is in a joyless marriage with an abusive husband. Her son is her only solace, her pride and joy. As she sets off to get him an expensive and totally inappropriate birthday present, she reminisces about the time during the Vietnam War when she not only protested the war, but toys of violence.

A well-known female English playwright meets an even more well-known American literary figure in “A Success Story.” He is known for his womanizing and comes on to her at a party. This coming on means more to her than having an intellectual conversation. She is happily married and things don’t go anywhere but she feels good that she is desired. The male character is based on the American novelist Saul Bellow.

“A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman” is about a woman who gets a job with her husband’s help at a television station. With time, she becomes very successful and gets to have her own show. Her husband becomes jealous and begins to despise her, sometimes even hitting her in her sleep. She carries herself well and usually has a smile on her face along with a look of success. Inside, however, she feels physically and emotionally ill. Her only comfort is her children who she gets to see very little of because of her grueling work schedule.

“The Merry Widow” is about Elsa who has just been widowed. Her husband was a mean emotionally abusive spouse and Elsa is glad that he is dead. She goes on a vacation alone that they had planned together and has a wonderful time until an old man with a scythe starts working the land. She realizes over time that she has mistaken him for “death” when he’s really a representative of “Father Time.” She is then able to enjoy herself again and look forward to the future.

Many of these stories are about the inner lives of women. The action takes place in their thoughts, hopes and dreams. It is very clear that what is seen on the outside is frequently very different from what is going on inside. Some of the stories seem like sketches for Drabble’s novels, ways for her to work out the characterizations. As a fan of Ms. Drabble, I loved this collection and feel privileged to have read it. I hope that more of her short stories come to light.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 14 readers
PUBLISHER: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (May 18, 2011)
REVIEWER: Bonnie Brody
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Margaret Drabble
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May 26, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Class - Race - Gender, Short Stories, United Kingdom, World Lit

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