I have been asking myself lately why reading collections of short stories should be a slog, and I think I have found the answer. It's the problem of the rich man with a closet full of new shoes. Rich men, as we all know, do not buy a single pair of shoes at a time; they buy ten different models, and in order to distribute them equally throughout five houses in various parts of the world, their hard-pressed valets find themselves staggering out of the shops with something like fifty pairs, if I have done my sums correctly, and that is where the trials begin. Ah, the blisters, the bunions, the saddlesoap. The additional expense of pedicure. A reviewer confronted simultaneously with three polished collections of stories is in much the same fix. I am speaking here of Mavis Gallant, Rachel Ingalls and Grace Paley, all ladies in a world where some of us try hard to be lads, and short stories written by ladies are little different from shoes: they need breaking in. During the course of the past two months, I hobbled dutifully between my various estates with all three under my arm. No sooner had I got used to one than I was obliged to try on another. Seduced by a pretty cover, I picked up Rachel Ingalls first. Three of a Kind contains, as one might expect, three stories, each with a tendency to run to fifty pages, although one falls short. The first of them bears the ominous title 'I see a long journey', and game for anything I set off. 'Flora had met James when she was going out with his younger brother, Edward.' Promising, because you know instantly from this that however well Edward might have done in the sprint, James is the one for the long haul. And so it turns out. 'He had had many girlfriends and mistresses, naturally.' Naturally. We are on good, solid ground here, striding confidently along to the side of experience. Besides, James is the one with the money. If he doesn't care for Flora at the end of fifty miles, he can always go out and try on another. Flora, for her part, doesn't love James but is unable to think of a reason to turn him down.
LRB 17 April 1986 | PDF Download