That such a self-assured example of the form should represent the writer’s first “serious” published work is quite astonishing; that it was the first of more than one hundred stories published by The New Yorker, including several of the 20 gathered here, does not surprise.
Madeline’s Birthday depicts the lives of Mrs Tracy upon whom 17-year-old Madeline has been foisted for the summer (“You are so much better able to cope.”) when her mother flees to Europe after her husband divorces her; a German refugee, Paul, one of her annual projects at the summer house (from which her husband perennially flees to the city); and Allie Tracey, nearly six, for whom adulthood is a strange country.
In the time span between a house awakening and breakfast, Gallant peels back the habitual order of daily life to delve into the emotional and psychological recesses of the minds of disparate characters who cohabit in a summer haven, but lack the warmth or understanding of a real family or community.
Characterisation is strong, dialogue fluent, imagery multi-layered, but the use of multiple points of view tends to divert the reader’s attention from the moment. Nevertheless, Madeline’s Birthday is a strikingly accomplished debut for a young writer, and, in the context of this chronologically organised collection, provides a template for many of the stories that follow.
Reflections of Madeline and Paul, abound in these works; characters adrift, with “an unhappiness about them”; children, or adolescents, whose parents have divorced, or parked them while they fled their own realities; children in the care of parents for whom they have become the emotional carers; adults who, in their efforts to distance themselves from impoverished roots, settle for impoverishment as companions to wealthy older women; and the men — sick, selfish, sycophantic backdrops to the lives of women and benumbed adolescents.
The title story, The Cost of Living, is a multi-layered gem narrated in the first person and set in a Left Bank Parisian hotel where past and present, light and dark, European and Anglo-Saxon, fuse in the relationships forged between two Australian sisters and two French actors, one male one female.
The equally praiseworthy The Burgundy Weekend focuses on the visit of a Canadian couple, Lucie and Jerome, with Jerome’s old French friend, Madame Arrieu, and is set against a backdrop of French Resistance, and Moroccan and Algerian conflicts. Madame Arrieu’s granddaughter, Nadine, is a reworking of Madeline, and reflects Gallant’s practice of revisiting characters to explore both teenage angst, and the contrasting tolerance of Lucie who is both nurse and provider to Jerome.
Elsewhere, Gallant, in trying to explain where her writing came from, has said that she had to go back to her childhood.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the brief, distinctly Chekovian The Wedding Ring. The nameless cousin is a reworking of Paul, the father is again absent, the mother “... a vixen. Everyone who sees her that summer will remember, later, the gold of her eyes and the lovely movement of her head. Her hair is true russet. She has the bloom women have sometimes when they are pregnant or when they have fallen in love. She can be wild, bitter, complaining, and ugly as a witch, but that summer is her peak. She has fallen in love”.
In a recent interview, Gallant said, “that is absolutely my mother”, as this story is wonderfully Gallant — clear, precise, and richly evocative, yielding fresh insights with each successive reading.