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.

"I 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.

Two 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.

Paley’s 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. Exactly.

Truth trumps politics, every time. Read to the heart of any of Paley’s stories and you will find it beating red and raw.

The Garden 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 narrative style.

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.

Read a story from this collection on Wise Woman's Web

Sarah Hilary is the winner of the Sense Creative Award 2010 and the Fish Criminally Short Histories Prize 2008. A column about the wartime experiences of her mother, who was a child internee of the Japanese, was published in Foto8 Magazine and subsequently in the Bristol Review of Books. Her short fiction can be found in Smokelong Quarterly, The Fish Anthology 2008, The Best of Every Day Fiction I and II, and in the Crime Writers’ Association anthology, MO: Crimes of Practice. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2009 for her story, Flood Plain

Sarah's other Short Reviews: Katherine Mansfield "The Collected Stories"   

Muriel Spark "The Complete Short Stories"   

"I.D. Crimes of Identity" anthology

Susan DiPlacido "American Cool" 

Sophie Hannah "The Fantastic Book of Everybody's Secrets"

Benjamin Percy "Refresh, Refresh"

Chavisa Woods "Love Does Not Make me Gentle or Kind"

Jennifer Pelland "Unwelcome Bodies"

Laura Solomon "Alternative Medicine"

Patricia Highsmith "Nothing that Meets the Eye"
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What other reviewers thought:

Laura Hird

NY Times


The Guardian