Women and Children First Rachel Barenblat Book Lovers

book Women and Children First

reviewed by Rachel Barenblat

Published in Issue No. 41 ~ October, 2000

On a recent Sunday my husband and I sat on our deck with books. He was re-reading
the Harry Potter series; I was reading Francine Prose’s Women and Children

“That’s a new one. Where’d you get that?” he asked.

“Just came in the mail from a used bookstore,” I said. “I’m reviewing it for
Pif‘s out of print issue.”

“That’s not very nice,” he pointed out. “Telling people about all these great
books they can’t get anymore.”

“Well, maybe it won’t be very good,” I hazarded. “Then I won’t have that problem.”

I have good news and bad news. The bad news: I have the problem he predicted.
Not that this surprises me — I’ve read Prose’s essays and novels, and
the theory that she might not be as skilled at the short story as she is at
everything else was a tenuous one at best.

The good news: this is a fantastic book of short stories, and your local library
might even have a copy. If you’re the kind of bibliophile who needs to own every
book you’ve ever loved, you’d better start hitting used bookstores now.

The stories in Women and Children First are uniformly beautiful and
surprising. Prose’s stories reveal the kernel of the extraordinary hidden within
ordinary people and ordinary situations. They left me feeling that, if I approached
my own life with her scalpel-like intensity, I would find something extraordinary
in me, too.

“Most of the Buddhists were therapists from the Upper West Side,” begins the
book’s first story, “Tibetan Time.” This is a tale about Ceci, a kindergarten
teacher spending a day at a Buddhist retreat outside the city. Through Ceci’s
eyes, Prose shows us the complicated facets of the lives of these “Buddhists”:
the German woman who is homesick for temple bells, the man in the parka who
flirts with her (to the frustration of his quiet wife), the pony-tailed kid
who’s obsessed with the Dalai Lama’s eating habits.

The next story, the book’s title story, throws the reader into a completely
different world. Janet, who lives outside of D.C., buys antiques to sell at
her friend Gordie’s shop in the city. “They have just smoked a joint in Gordie’s
bedroom in the basement of his shop,” Prose writes.

They are sitting cross-legged on his carved four-poster bed, amid the Chinese
knickknacks, the Oscar Wilde bearskin rug, the moth-eaten taxidermy Gordie
says is illegal even to own, and looking through a carton of antique nursery-rhyme
illustrations, the remnants of some disintegrated kids’ book that someone
recognized as beautiful and worth saving.

Ostensibly, the story is about Janet taking her son to a doctor’s office to
explore mother-son ESP, and while I enjoyed this thread of the story, Janet’s
offhand musings about her life proved the aspect of the story that sticks with
me most:

When she and Will split up and she found this way to live out here and
make money, she’d thought that the rest of her life would be a treasure
hunt. The auctions, the sales, checking the local obits — how quickly
it all came to seem like a job. It’s got so her heart sinks at the sight
of another beautiful oak hutch.

It’s possible that those lines resonate with me because I live in small-town
New England; one of my favorite ways to spend a Sunday is to drive up and down
country roads, looking for the kinds of treasures Janet has learned to loathe.
I suspect, though, that these lines would ring true even for someone who’s
never visited an East Coast auction hall, never thumbed through used books or
scanned shelves of chipped estate china.

The book’s next story, “Other Lives,” reminded me a little of where I
live, as well. Dottie attends the New Consciousness Academy in Bennington and
looks like a sunflower, and while I live near enough to Bennington that I think
I’d know if such an academy existed, it’s a slim enough stretch
that I’m willing to suspend my disbelief.

We also meet Claire, Dottie’s best friend; their daughters, Poppy and
Miranda; and their husbands, Raymond and Joey. Again, the insights of the characters
prove as interesting as the story of which they are a part:

Claire looks at the children and the two sets of parents and thinks a stranger
walking in would have trouble telling: Which one paints dancing vegetables?
Which one’s lived before as a Napoleonic soldier? Which ones have mated
for life? She thinks they are like constellations, or like that engraving
on Evelyn’s father’s desk, or like sunflowers seen from below. Depending
on how you look, they could be anything.

People could be anything and aren’t always what they seem — this
theme extends into “Everyone Had a Lobster,” which introduces us to Valerie,
freeloading at an expensive summer home where the residents carry a video camera
with them each day and watch their day’s events on the television after dinner.
We watch Valerie’s fascination with the mysterious Nasir and the way their relationship
sours. “It amazed her that what you’d hoped was the start of your life could
turn out to be a scene in someone else’s porno movie,” Prose writes.

Some of the stories are evocative of other stories I have read and loved. “Everything
is About Animals” reminds me of the assortment of animal (especially ape) stories
in T.C. Boyle’s Collected Stories; “Electricity” — with its tale
of a middle-aged man turned Hasid — points me to “The Gilgul of Park Avenue,”
from Nathan Englander’s For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. But Prose’s
volume predates both of these. In any case, they’re flattering comparisons;
Boyle and Englander’s collections are among my favorites in recent months. Prose’s
collection has now joined them.

There are certain images that recur, threads tying the stories loosely together.
Setting oneself on fire, for instance (although I won’t spoil anything by listing
places where that one pops up). The twined trio of wanting a child, having a
child, not having a child. Letting go. Storytelling, and the reliability (or
unreliability) of narration.

But mostly, the mixture of wit and compassion with which Prose brings her characters
to life ties these stories together. By the collection’s end, I was both
near laughter and near tears because we are all tender and ordinary and screwed-up,
and Prose sees that. She leaves ambiguous the possibility of a kind of redemption,
but I see the world more clearly now that I have taken her words inside.

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Rachel Barenblat is co-founder of Inkberry, a literary organization in the Berkshires. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. A chapbook of her poems, the skies here, was published by Pecan Grove Press (San Antonio) in 1995. Learn more at www.rachelbarenblat.com