Grace Paley: The Collected Stories
by Grace Paley
Virago 1998, Paperback
First collection? No
Born in the Bronx in 1922 to
Russian émigrés, Grace Paley was a renowned writer and activist. Her Collected Stories
was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
She died in Vermont on August 22, 2007.
held him so and rocked him. I cradled him. I closed my eyes and leaned
on his dark head. But the sun emerged from among the water towers of
downtown office buildings and suddenly shone white and bright on me.
Then through the short fat fingers of my son, interred forever, like a
black-and-white-barred king in Alcatraz, my heart lit up in stripes."
Reviewed by Sarah Hilary
Spring is a great time to be reading Grace Paley. Her skittish
snapshots of lives lived in (often cheerful) disarray woke my brain
right out of its winter hibernation. These aren’t stories to curl up
with on a cold evening, although there’s real warmth to Paley’s
writing; you need all your wits about you as a reader, to get the most
out of this collection.
short sad stories from a long and happy life: A subject of childhood
tells of a moment in the life of Faith, a woman who reappears in
several of Paley’s short stories. Divorced, a mother with a variety of
lovers, Faith is a touchstone for the reader, a linking thread across
the stories Paley tells. Always on the brink of some great freedom,
Faith is tied first by her status as a single woman, then as a mother
struggling to raise two small boys without losing her sense of self,
finally as a woman of fifty whose boys are men, political, pessimistic,
reminders of her still-unraveling life. It’s easy to love Faith, with
her cloudy self-knowledge and her fretful honesty. Finding her in a new
story further into the collection was the closest I came to feeling
"settled" while reading the book.
But "settled" is over-valued.
critics argue that she politicises her characters beyond the bounds of
belief, and there are indeed many feminists and activists in these
stories. But they never feel less than real, because of Paley’s ear for
an authentic voice. She writes what she knows – and makes no secret of
this fact – Jewish families, mothers and aunts but also fathers,
grandfathers, children and friends. Several of her stories are taught
in schools and colleges as examples of political and/or feminist
writing, but that’s not to say the stories work only at this level.
The Long-Distance Runner,
I’m told, is an allegory for the menopause. So what, frankly? It’s a
terrific story of a woman running away from her life and into other
people’s. Paley ends the story like this:
"A woman inside the steamy
energy of middle age runs and runs. She finds the houses and streets
where her childhood happened. She lives in them. She learns as though
she was still a child what in the world is coming next." Yes, she does.
Truth trumps politics, every time. Read to the heart of any of Paley’s stories and you will find it beating red and raw.
is a story about loss, kidnapped children, Cuba. Or is it? "She had
become interested in her own courage" is how the story ends, as its
heroine confronts the reality of her wasting disease.
The Pale Pink Roast
tells of a man revisiting her former lover, Anna, and their child after
some absence. This robust specimen, "the maximum of manhood", delights
in helping Anna with various domestic chores, after which they sleep
together, after which he learns that Anna is now married to another
man. He accuses Anna of misleading him, making him an adulterer, but is
happy enough when she excuses her lapse by saying she’s still in love
with him. The simplicity of the man’s pride, and the complex generosity
of Anna’s response to it, is a fine example of Paley’s ability to write
subtext that resonates beyond the surface charm and banter of her
Skim-read Paley’s stories and you may end up
trying to convince yourself she’s at fault for being too political, or
for giving us only glimpses of her characters, or for flaunting the
rules of story-telling. But if you’re prepared to meet the author
midway, to revel in her mischievous sense of purpose, to take a dive
face-first into real lives that may not be explained or described in
any traditional manner – grab this collection. Chances are your brain
will thank you for the spring-clean.