short story collections step into the

find something to read by:

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe
Carson McCullers

"“Son, do you know how love should be begun?....A tree. A rock. A cloud.” "

Reviewed by Pauline Masurel

Carson McCullers once wrote that “communication is the only access to love”. Many of her characters are loners, but being alone does not eliminate their ability to love, nor their quest for it, often in the strangest of places. The title story, or novella, is set in a dreary town, illuminated only by the effects of a strange love triangle, that transform the local store into a thriving café. Marvin Macy is a handsome reprobate and despoiler of teen girls, Miss Amelia Evans is the wealthy, mannish owner of the property who marries Macy and lives with him for only ten days before kicking him out. She later falls for her own cousin Lymon, a hunchback of indeterminate age, who is charmed into disloyalty by Macy when he returns to the town. 

There are six other stories in this collection, in which McCullers often portrays this type of asymmetry between the one who loves and their beloved. Love is often mis-directed, as though it were a gaze that had inadvertently alighted on the wrong object, as in A Domestic Dilemma, where alcohol becomes the third party in a marriage when a wife turns to drink for company. 

In Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland, Mr Brook is “tolerant of the peculiarities of others, indeed, he rather relished the ridiculous. Often, when confronted with some grave and incongruous situation, he would feel a little inside tickle, which stiffened his long, mild face and sharpened the light in his grey eyes.” If these stories had eyes of their own then they would also definitely light up at any hint of 'peculiarity' and relish the incongruous and eccentric. 

Wunderkind captures that instant when a child encouraged as a prodigy realises that she cannot achieve her early promise. It does what short stories can do so wonderfully, describes a turning point. The Sojourner examines the bond between a man and his ex-wife's family and how it affects his relationship with his new partner's son. The Jockey is perhaps the fiercest and most overt piece of social commentary. But even the jockey's sense of injustice is fired by affection for another rider, rather than being an arbitrary, political message. McCullers often achieves the strongest effect with tiny gestures. A mouthful of fried potato says all that need be said about the difference in status between one man and another. 

My favourite story is the final one in this collection: A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud. It exemplifies perfectly the struggle of a character to re-find love and provides hope for anyone who tries to follow his method with an optimistic ending of sorts.


Pauline Masurel is a short fiction writer from Bath, UK. Her stories have been published online, in anthologies, and broadcast on BBC Radio. She performs at spoken word events in Bristol and Bath. Her ambition is to write a story so tiny it cannot be seen with the naked eye.

Pauline's other Short Reviews: Italo Calvino "Invisible Cities"   

Jeffrey Eugenides (ed) "My Mistress' Sparrow is Dead" 

Publisher: Penguin Books

Publication Date: February 1999 (first published in the US in 1951)


First collection?Yes

Author bio:

Carson McCullers was born in Georgia, twice-married the same man and was often in poor health. Wunderkind was her first published story. Her novels include Reflections in a Golden Eye and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, both made into films. She also wrote several plays.

Buy this book (used or new) from:

The Publisher's Website: Penguin




And...don't forget your local booksellers and independent book shops! Visit  IndieBound.org to find an independent bookstore near you in the US

If you liked this book you might also like.... :

Carson McCullers "The Mortgaged Heart"

Fred Chappell "I am one of you"

Anything by John Cheever

What other reviewers thought: