Having had such a difficult relationship with her mother, Mavis Gallant must have hoped for more from her father.
She must have drawn upon the distance and disapproval she experienced to bring another layer of verisimilitude to the story of Sarah Holmes and her father.
She would have related to Sarah’s between-ness too, as Sarah was sent from Canada to France to learn about French civilization in Grenoble, where she spends time with other expats and observes French civilization from a distance.
(This recalls many other young women in Mavis Gallant’s stories, like Carol in “The Other Paris”, the Marshalls in “The Picnic” and Barbara in “One Morning in June”: so many expectations of continental life.)
“The word ‘Riviera’ had predicted yellow mornings and snowy boats, and crowds filling the streets in the way dancers fill a stage. Her mind’s eye had kept them at a distance so that they shimmered and might have been plumed, like peacocks.”
Mr. Holmes might not have been too concerned about what Sarah was getting up to in France; maybe he was simply pleased with himself for having removed her from the influence of Professor Downcast, a married man and father, with whom Sarah had become entangled.
But soon Sarah’s father realizes that she was an active participant in that situation (perhaps he once saw her as a victim), and sends her a letter which itemizes the qualities that Sarah seems to seek in a man. (It’s not a very flattering list.)
This is awfully handy for Sarah, however, who can use it as a shopping list of sorts.
Enter: Roy Cooper.
She tells him her entire life story. “She tossed a stone, a puppy asking for a game.” She is living in the moment, seeking diversions not decisions.
When Roy asks her to share the apartment he has found outside of Nice, she agrees. “She reflected on how no girl she knew had ever done quite this, and what her father would say.”
This, above all else, reveals Sarah’s immaturity. She is like a young child, seeking to provoke a response from a parent, when she is no longer sneaking a cookie before dinner but choosing indulgences that are truly life-changing.
Sarah’s idea of innocence rests in her experiences of intimacy (physical, rather than emotional, it seems). “She was not as innocent as her father still hoped she might turn out to be, but not as experienced as Roy thought either.”
But she is so preoccupied by making decisions against her father, that she overlooks that these decisions are against her own self as well, determining her own future unhappiness. (She has been disappointed before, by Professor Downcast at least, so ‘innocent’ is no longer the correct word, although perhaps ‘immature’ doesn’t capture it either.)
She strives to make (or, at least, hopes for) connections, and although she appears to judge other women who don’t fit the idea of a ‘good woman’, she is more like them than she admits.
“For the first time she recognized prostitutes; they clustered outside her hotel, gossiping with faces like dead letters.”
(This is such an effective simile, because if you get stopped at the ‘dead’ you can flash forward to the other images of decay which appear in the story and, if you take a moment to reflect on ‘dead letters’, then you can add the idea of being lost, misdirected, then stagnant.)
When Sarah moves into the Reeves’ basement, into “the tunnel”, which was once used to store olives and wine, she enters into darkness. The door at one end is covered with mosquito netting and offers little light even in the daytime.
It’s not just the tunnel, because the upstairs, where the Reeves live is disappointing, too, smelling like “toast, carpets, and insect spray” instead of jasmine. In Gallant’s stories, lives, not buildings hold a scent.
“The Reeves’ garden incinerator, which was never cleaned out, set oily smoke to sit at their table like a third person.”
Sarah visits the incinerator daily, dumping the produce she has bought the day before, which spoils overnight because Roy unplugs the wheezing fridge when he wakes up at night, frustrated by a broken sleep.
Roy’s commitment issues extend far beyond produce. The Reeves are familiar with the pattern and seem to have very little sympathy for Sarah.
But, also, Sarah notices that the incinerator is always dirty but never thinks to clean it either (although, arguably, she is contributing to it more than most, for the Reeves do not seem to consume a lot of fresh vegetables and fruit).
None of this makes it into Sarah’s letters. Ironically, although her father’s response to Sarah’s choosing Roy was among the motivating factors which encouraged her to accept Roy’s offer, she doesn’t share her decisions with her father.
For a time, one hopes that this disconnect, a quiet acknowledgement on Sarah’s part that her life is something which is awkward to describe, not just awkward but uncomfortable, will lead Sarah to make different choices.
Readers hope for something more for her. Hope that she will catch a whiff of jasmine. Or, at least, buy some in the market, instead of produce to burn the next day.
But, there are many pages left in the story. And Sarah hasn’t even met Lisbet yet.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the last story in The End of the World. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next collection: From the Fifteenth District, beginning November 1st with “The Four Seasons”.
The Other Paris (TOP) / The Picnic (TOP) / About Geneva (TOP) / Acceptance of Their Ways (MHiB) / My Heart is Broken (MHiB) / An Unmarried Man’s Summer (MHiB) / The End of the World / The Accident / Malcolm and Bea (TCoL) / The Prodigal Parent / The Wedding Ring (TCoL) / New Year’s Eve / In the Tunnel