Mrs Somebody Somebody
 by Tracy Winn

Random House
2010
Paperback
First Collection

Awards:
Finalist, John Gardner Book Award, the Julia Ward Howe Award, Massachusetts Book Award.







"Many years ago, Frenchie used to drive around Lowell on Sundays with his wife, Martine, just for something to do. After she got too sick, he drove alone. That was how he’d found the stone wall to work on."


Reviewed by Sarah Salway

If I call this book "old fashioned fiction", I mean it as a compliment. Both the writing style and the way the narrative evolves, are formal, mannerly, proper – unlike some of the delicious characters Winn writes aobut. Dawn, for instance, the step-mother in Another Way to Make Cleopatra Cry, runs off with the bikers who stole her purse leaving three children in a bar. Or Delia in Glass Box, who married her husband before he went off to war, and then fell in love with the gardener who still torments her many years (and several stories) later when he turns up at her husband's aunts' table.

Although the title story is over 40 pages long, it's not just the length of the stories that make this collection different from some contemporary collections where the narratives are over almost before they've started. With those, I'm jolted into feeling before being left with a startling, often beautiful, image. It is as if we've kissed and parted before being introduced. Now, that can be nice sometimes, but Mrs Somebody
Somebody is after a more serious and, well, courtly courtship.

And yet this might also be at the heart of the book's challenge for me. In an essay included in the book, Winn says that when she was exploring the countryside she wrote about, she "mostly stayed in my car – a shy voyeur – and drove around looking and looking, a notebook in my lap, a map on the seat". And indeed, although there were many sentences and images rich enough to underline, there were times when I was left longing for someone to leap out of the car and do something, and for the regrets – and there are more than a few here – to be for actions taken, rather than missed.

However, when the stories work, they repay every second of the slow reading you are seduced into. To take the title story, Mrs Somebody Somebody, which starts with this arresting image:
Lucy Mattsen was nobody – like all the women I worked with – until the day the baby fell out of the window.
As the story progresses, it becomes apparent that the shocking fact of this first sentence is not the baby falling, but the idea that any of the women portrayed could be described as "nobody". By showing the details of their day to day life, and the excitement over a work dance, their everyday bravery and humanity hits home, and hard. Lucy is a mystery to everyone, and particularly to Stella, the narrator of the story, when she first comes to work at the mill. Clues creep out – she's educated, she's not poor like the others, she's a union organiser – at the same pace as learn the consequences these facts may have for a mill worker. Winn makes no judgements; instead she shows us so slowly, so delicately what goes on that we live the hours alongside her characters.

After reading this story, I turned to the back and wasn't surprised to find tht the mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts, where the book is set, is based on a real place, and the mill building – albeit Winn found it with "broken windows and a front door hanging open" – a real building. Where Winn suceeds is in bringing it and its people so much to life.

Of course, the joy of linked stories (as in Elizabeth Strout's masterly Olive Kittredge) is that you get to see characters at different times in their lives. This gives the stories a new layer, so that when someone walks into a story, even as a reader you can have that yummy shudder of understanding exactly why a hush comes over the room. Winn shows us every side of the story, from parents, their children, workers and bosses. And although in comparison to Strout's book, this collection feels less narrative driven, it is a serious rumination about what it means to live in a certain time and place, and what it means to have a sense of duty – or otherwise – to the others who live with us.


Read an excerpt from a story from this collection on WinnWriter.com


Sarah Salway is a novelist, blogger and journalist. She is currently the RLF Fellow at the LSE, and her novels include Something Beginning With and Getting the Picture. With Catherine Smith she runs the writer-led initiative, Speechbubble Books (www.speechbubblebooks.co.uk) designed to publish short stories in innovative forms.
Sarahs's other Short Reviews: Lorrie Moore "Self Help"   

Karen Russell "St Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves"

Niki Aguirre "29 Ways to Drown"

Michael Martone "Michael Martone"
                     
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Tracy Winn earned her MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers. The receipient of many grants and fellowships, her short stories have appeared in journals such as the Alaska Quarterly Review, The New Orleans Review, and Hayden's Ferry Review. Tracy lives near Boston, Massachusetts, with her husband. She works with Gaining Ground, an organic farm that gives all of its produce away for hunger relief.

Read an interview with Tracy Winn