(Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2011)
When I cracked open Stolen Pleasures, all I knew about Gina Berriault was that she was a California writer, a “writer’s writer” decked out with major awards but missing the name recognition to match. Before I had even made it through the introduction to this rangy, taut collection, I was moved to look up a Didion quote that I remembered from years ago. “California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension,” she wrote in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. By the end of “The Infinite Passion of Expectation”—the second story in the Berriault book and the one that’s lingered the most—this tension was already pulling me through. I was deep in the play of open spaces and compressed people, all trying to inscribe themselves on mundane geographies that just won’t give.
A waitress’s apartment in “A Dream of Fair Women” is “empty despite her own things solidly there,” while the elderly man I’m most taken with “[stamps] along the sidewalks” as “his long stiff legs [attempt] ease and flair.” But as a genteel portrait of anticipation courted then gone, Berriault’s tale of an aging psychologist and his callow girl friend (not girlfriend, not quite) reminds me of nothing so much as Edith Wharton. I know this isn’t the right comparison—the form is wrong, the location is off, I should reach for Chekhov or Updike or Maupassant—but few last lines pack the dry punch of Newland Archer walking alone to his hotel in The Age of Innocence. Berriault just about gets there, in the observations of a girl who watches wisdom cease to need her. “But as they talked, seated side by side on a rock, she saw that he had drawn back unto himself his life’s expectations. They were way inside, and they required, now, no other person for their fulfillment.”
If there is a tie that binds the sweeping assortment of characters and situations that make up this collection (besides a restrained style that melds high literary allusion with a homeless man’s poetic ravings), it is this aloneness of the bypassed event. Many of Berriault’s strongest pieces chronicle the alienation wrought by things not feeling like they should: a young farm boy accidentally shoots and kills his brother, then gets back to the business of picking peapods. Or when a woman tells her ex-lover’s grown son about her past with his father, “in order to experience again . . . the shifting and floating of the weightless silk around her thighs,” she is met with only “the face of a sick child.” It is probably for this reason that even among many clever turns of phrase, the single line that sticks with me as encapsulating Berriault’s gifts is a plain one. “How could a man change like that?” wonders the pregnant, working-class wife of “Myra,” whose husband might as well be dead. Then she miscarries not a child, she thinks, but “a silent thing . . . that must have been her anger against him.” By that point, what should have been pain—the pain even we can feel for her—has been dulled by wondering how the hell things got here. And this is what Stolen Pleasures does best: it hints at how much happens in so little, and makes us marvel at how life comes and goes.
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Jeanne-Marie Jackson‘s review of Stolen Pleasures originally appeared in TLR’s Summer 2011 issue, The Rat’s Nest.