Tidewater Review - May 2010
Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger
Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger by Lee Smith. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 372 pp. $23.95.
This critic has never understood the readers who take forever to finish a novel. How do they retain the mood, the taste, the thread of the story by getting it in bits and pieces? Even less comprehensible are the readers who have several novels on track at the same time.
That variety of multi-tasking is as futile as the kid who says he’s doing his homework at the same time he is texting a friend and watching TV at the same time he’s trying to solve an algebra problem. Something has to get short shrift – most likely the algebra is my guess.
For the reader who is compelled to put down a book after 20 or 30 minutes, here’s a new collection of short stories made for those with stuttering attention. It’s Lee Smith’s latest book, her fourth book of short stories; seven new ones and seven favorites from three previous collections. She also has 14 novels in print and shows no sign of ending her prolific writing career, for which we should all be grateful.
Each of the tales in “Mrs. Darcy” is complete and unique, each set in a totally different venue and featuring sharp portraits of a range of social classes. Smith does it with economy of narration, letting the characters reveal themselves in dialogue that rings true and revealing as an x-ray.
From the opening paragraph of “Bob, A Dog,” an undercurrent of tension is nearly palpable on the page. The first sentence, in fact, hums with disaster. “It was early May, two days after his thirty-ninth birthday, when David left her forever.” What in the world does that have to do with a dog named Bob?
It’s a genuine Lee Smith touch, a poke in the ribs when you’re not expecting it. The reader is braced for a scene of hysterics, maybe torrents of tears. David’s wife of some 20 years, merely says, “Oh, that’s okay.” She said it “without thinking, because she had gone for so long pleasing men.” It wasn’t okay, of course, because David had also walked away from their four children, one of whom brought home a big dog and the usual plea, “Can we keep him, Mom, please, please, please?”
Bob the Dog won’t stay in his pen. Is he just another ingrate, like David?
The reader will want to chew that over for a while before moving on to the second story, “Toastmaster.” It features a young boy along with his mother at some sort of workshop for do-gooders in Key West. Jeffrey, the kid, observes everything and everybody, silently sizing them up, thinking the big words in his vocabulary list. He has an Invisible Life, he thinks, and is the most fascinating kid in recent fiction. Silence is his normal mode, but when he makes up a joke, it’s a zinger. The whole joke is, “A dyslexic horse walks into a bra.” It’s subtle and sneaky, but when I got it I nearly fell out of my chair laughing. This has got to be the best story in the book, the critic thought, and was promptly proved wrong.
Smith has a lot more surprises up her sleeves. In “House Tour,” an antisocial couple of intellectual snobs are annoyed when their house is mistaken as part of a Christmas house tour for charity. Visitors who brazenly enter and demand a walk-through are exactly like ordinary people the couple disdains. So why are they so unsettled when the tourists leave?
“Ultima Thule” presents a mismatched couple divided by a metaphorical train track. One is tough and sensible. Her spouse is mentally fragile and relatively helpless. A recipe for collision is inevitable.
The high school wallflower gets the dreamboat football star in “Big Girl,” the next in Smith’s chronicles of women whose men often have done ’em wrong. In this case, the big girl loves her no-good husband to the very end. Well, almost. The reader will want to applaud through tears at a gutsy heroine.
“Intensive Care” pits a perky redhead and a Mr. Milquetoast nice guy in a genuine love story marred by scandal and cancer, equally corrosive.
And so it goes.
A lonely tweenager discovers the drama of backwoods religious groups in “Tongues of Fire” when she gets carried away and testifies in gibberish. In a different format, the author returns to the home of urban/rural caste systems and how easily one can learn to lie.
“Fried Chicken” traces the willful ignorance that can grow out of smother-love. The reader is led to believe that the mother whose son can do no wrong is preparing his favorite food, fried chicken, to take to him in prison. Her denial leads her into an alternative errand. Once again, familiar terrain eludes the gullible reader. Fooled again!
Finally, Smith pulls the tale of “Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger” from her bag of tricks to close the odyssey of the really strange and the merely befuddled. Newly widowed Mrs. Darcy and her three grown daughters have reunited for their annual summer vacation at the beach. The girls are debating whether their mother should be moved into a nursing home.
It takes a double rainbow and a vision, or maybe a hallucination, to turn nagging concern into a crisis. Whoa! the reader gasps at the last page. What just went on here?
The overwhelming impression created by this extraordinary book is its echo of a memoir. Each vignette limns people we know. They’re ordinary folks who inhabit ordinary lives. Some of them revel in simple things. Some endure tragedies with patience. Some suffer fools gladly or toss them out, bag and baggage. Lee Smith makes them as real as neighbors.