Sunday, December 5, 2010

Book Review: 'The Cost of Living' by Mavis Gallant

Mavis Gallant (1949- )
The Cost of Living: Early and Uncollected Stories (2007)

340 pages

A 16 year old city girl feels trapped in the Connecticut countryside, forced to spend the summer with family friends, after her newly divorced mother goes off to Europe on her own. A maid realizes she's pregnant, and struggles to know where to turn, as the couple she works for remains blind to her situation even as they pride themselves on the friendly way they treat her and try to help her better herself.   A couple whose daughter has been expelled from boarding school for having disappeared for a weekend of fun with a boy awaits her return home, wondering how to deal with this child that they suddenly feel they hardly know.

These and over a dozen more short stories make up this collection. The stories center around families whose delicately balanced lives are disturbed by the presence of someone who refuses to fit into their view of the world, or by a new situation or a move to another country that makes their view of the world difficult to sustain.   Women struggle with absent or effectively absent husbands, couples suffer miscommunication and misunderstandings that make them strangers under the same roof, and children resist being molded to their parent's image of the ideal.
...their daughters [were] in boarding school. Private schools were out of line with the Knight's social beliefs, but in the case of their own children they had judged a private school essential.
from the story 'Bernadette'
He thought it wrong of [his little girl] to show so plainly she was sick to death
of his voice; she ought to have learned a few of the social dishonesties by now.
from the story "The Rejection"
In these stories, conversations are often little more than people talking past each other, with assumptions and unshared expectations leading to misunderstandings and frustration. The characters are left feeling isolated and trapped, uncertain how to move forward, or even get back to the safe, careful lives they had built for themselves, but that are coming apart in the face of some unexpected event. The relative lack of explicit action in the stories allows the frustrations and often barely concealed tensions between the characters to take center stage.

Despite the fact that these are not generally happy stories, they are a wonderful collection of mini-dramas of people trying to fit in to and make sense of an often incomprehensible world.

Read quotes from this book

Other reviews / information:
by Padma Viswanathan on The Rumpus website

by Adam Mars Jones in The Guardian

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