Over the course of my Sunday I have gone from thinking I wouldn't read a short story, to trying to read a short story and failing, feeling adrift and then settling down and discovering a most wonderful story by an author I am unfamiliar with (and can't seem to find much information about . . .). I had a feeling I wouldn't manage the novella that is next in my Francis Wyndham collection, and I didn't. I thought I would skip the novella again this week and move on to the next story, but it just wasn't quite clicking.
So I picked up my copy of OxCrimes and read half of a story only to decide that I wasn't enjoying it at all and was just plodding along and knowing I would be writing about it later and wondering how I would ever muster up a little enthusiasm for it. Why am I reading something I am so completely not enjoying? As a matter of fact I have not had much luck with that collection at all, so I think it is going to be sent back to my bookshelves. I have tried and it just isn't for me--at least not now.
So, being at a loose end in terms of my short story reading, what was I going to do? A tiny voice inside was saying 'it really is okay to just skip it all for a day/weekend', but a cursory look through a pile of short story collections netted me a few anthologies that looked promising. One more try, then. First try with Short Story Masterpieces edited by Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine (originally published in 1954) and I found a number of intriguing-looking stories. And yes, I found my story and discovered a wonderful new-to-me writer, Elizabeth Parsons.
Now, why can't I find anything about her? Only a brief review from the 1950s in Kirkus Reviews for a collection called An Afternoon, which is out of print. If "The Nightingales Sing" is anything to go by, she is a wonderful writer and I plan on going through the New Yorker's archives to read more of her work. She seems to have published stories there in the 1940s and 1950s.
First a note about this Robert Penn Warren collection. Lots of stories that I want to read. Not much in the way of an introduction or preface. And no biographical material, which I find hugely disappointing. I did find the copyright to the story and where it was originally published at least, but otherwise the stories stand on their own and that is that. (But who knows, maybe that is all that is needed anyway?).
This particular collection contains classic American and British stories, but not being familiar with Parsons I had no idea what I was in for other than an opening paragraph that caught my eye.
"Through the fog the car went up the hill, whining in second gear, up the sandy road that ran between the highest and broadest stone walls that Joanna had ever seen. There were no trees at all, only the bright-green, cattle-cropped pastures sometimes visible above the walls, and the sweetfern and juniper bushes, all dim in the opaque air and the wan light of an early summer evening. Phil, driving the creaking station wagon with dexterous recklessness, said to her, 'I hope it's the right road. Nothing looks familiar in this fog and I've only been here once before."
Yes, I wanted to keep reading. Now to puzzle out just what the story is about and where it is set--here in the US or in Britain (I am not even sure whether Parsons is American). Of course, for me, part of the fun is not knowing what you are getting and letting it all unfold in your mind as you read.
The setting--the West Coast of the US--maybe California? Joanna is a schoolgirl, perhaps 17 or 18 and Phil is the older brother of one of her schoolfriends. Unmarried at 31 Phil is strictly a friend, someone she has known for a long time. It had been planned she and her friend would go to a horse show, but when she comes down with the chickenpox Joanna and Phil go alone instead. The action takes place afterwards, at the house of Phil's friend where they have been invited for a meal. This story captures the moment when something subtly shifts in a young woman's life. There is this realization that the world is bigger and broader than that which she knows and sees daily.
"Joanna had known him for years but she realized looking at him in the yellow light, that she knew almost nothing about him. Before this, he had been Carol's elder brother, but here in the unfamiliar surroundings he was somebody real."
Phil's friend Sandy has a wife in Texas but a lover in California. Chris is not much older than Joanna, yet is infinitely older. She has ridden one of Sandy's horses in the show and taken a fall. This is a story where not much happens really, yet it has a moment of epiphany for Joanna. There is nothing earth shattering, yet she sees what she might be, some other way of being, of knowing. There is the safety of the known in her family's home, but outside, there is another way of living. It's like taking that first tentative step from being a schoolgirl living safely with your parents in a home that you know but seeing that there is something else outside those familiar four walls.
There is lots of lovely descriptions. Both of the physical and the interior of the mind, of the heart. Sandy's house has an ethereal quality--maybe because of the way it is situated on its own, or because the fog makes it feel lonely and otherwordly.
"But there was something here that did not belong in the land of tea and hot water bottles--a land that, indeed, now seemed on another planet."
It's not what she knows, but she likes it. And it changes her. For me, it is like going on vacation and seeing something totally new and different and unfamiliar. And then when I return home, nothing is quite like I remember it from before. Joanna finds that, too, when Phil drops her off and she looks upon the old and familiar with different eyes--even the photos on the walls are not quite the same.
"The world of the pictures was as fresh and simple as a May morning; the sun shone and everyone was happy. She stared at the familiar little scenes on the walls with love--and with a sympathy for them she had never felt before--and then she put out the light and went back along the hall."
I loved this story. I'm not sure in which direction I'll go next with my short stories, maybe I'll return to this collection. But I want a story that is just as good!