Mavis Gallant’s “New Year’s Eve” (1970)

Amabel is just a few years older than young Shirley, who lost her young husband Pete when they were newlyweds in “The Accident”; barely married, not yet disappointed.

Had Amabel and Shirley been friends, able to discuss their brief experiences of married life, I wonder how their opinions might have altered.

At twenty-two, Amabel is no longer married and bitterly disappointed. If she were to listen to all the reasons that Shirley became disenchanted by the marriage between Pete’s parents, I think she would have suggested that perhaps there hadn’t been enough love there.

She is convinced that the Plummers’ marriage, which she observes in the wake of her own separation, is ideal. They are older and they are still married: this is not only a success, but a devotional model. (In her mind, not in the Plummers’ minds: readers can see them all.)

What the Plummers’ marriage might have been, had they not weathered the loss of their daughter, Catherine, who had been friends with Amabel when they were girls? Nobody knows.

And it doesn’t matter. Because if Catherine were still alive, Amabel wouldn’t have invited herself to Moscow for the holidays. The story would not have unfolded.

It’s on the strength of that loss, of the past friendship between the lost daughter and Amabel, that Amabel asks if she can visit and, even though Mrs. Plummer sends a list of impressive reasons why this would not be a good choice on Amabel’s part, the older woman politely agrees to receive Amabel in the city, though as a guest in a hotel, not in their home.

So Amabel is in Moscow, attending the opera, because of two losses, the Plummers’ daughter (one doesn’t really have the feeling that Catherine and Amabel were adoring and devoted friends) and her own marriage.

She and Shirley (from “The Accident”) would have that in common, for that story is one of two losses as well, also on behalf of the parents and a young wife. But in that case revolving around a single absence.

But Shirley observes the marriage between Pete’s parents as problematic (particularly by the time a second wife is on the scene). She is aware of ‘secrets’ being a problem.

Amabel holds the opposite view of the Plummers’ marriage: “She hated them for flaunting their long understanding, making her discarded, left out of a universal game. No one would love her the way the Colonel loved his wife.”

Yet, everything about the Plummers seems to be secret. Readers shift from Amabel’s perspective to each of the married individuals, who observe the world around them, but their observations reveal so much more about them than about what they’re observing (although the external details also help readers situate themselves).

For instance, Mrs. Plummer is saving her winnings from her afternoon bridge games. “When she had enough, she intended to leave him.” But ‘enough’ is never defined, and one wonders if it’s simply the idea that she might be able to leave – someday? whenever? – that she craves.

Her life is bland and if Proust falls into memory via a madeleine, Mrs. Plummer’s trigger is more ordinary, to say the least.

“The day had no colour. It might have been late afternoon. Then the smell of toast came into my room and I was back in my mother’s dining room in Victoria, with the gros-point chairs and the framed embroidered grace on the wall. A little girl I had been ordered to play with kicked the baseboard, waiting for us to finish our breakfast.”

When Amabel hinted “at her troubles, said something about a wasted life, Mrs. Plummer cut her off with ‘Most lives are wasted. All are shortchanged. A few are tragic.’”

Amabel’s shortchangedness is no different than Mrs. Plummer’s, the older woman suggests (although Amabel misses the point, so she would be no help in determining whether Shirley’s would have been either ‘wasted’ or ‘tragic’ in addition).

Both Amabel and Shirley are desperate to belong, both yearn for a home and a special love they have believed in long and hard (like Victoria in “Sunday Afternoon” and Carol in “The Other Paris”). But according to the Colonel’s wife, the Plummers and the Higgens (from “The Accident”) are shortchanged as well.

They’re lonely. And believe others feel less alone than they do.

But hot and buttered toast makes good company sometimes.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the second last 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 story, next week: “In the Tunnel”. 

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 SEPTEMBER 4, 2018

2018-08-27T10:32:51+00:00

12 Comments

  1. The Reading Life August 29, 2018 at 8:09 pm - Reply

    I really enjoyed the setting in Moscow and the time at the opera. Great story.

    • Buried In Print August 30, 2018 at 10:31 am - Reply

      I can’t remember another of her stories set in Russia: that was a nice surprise for sure! So glad you enjoyed it – and a lighter read for you than the other stories you’ve been reading lately.

  2. Laila@BigReadingLife August 29, 2018 at 2:13 pm - Reply

    This one sounds great. Although how very brash of Amabel to push herself onto the Plummers for a visit!

    • Buried In Print August 29, 2018 at 3:36 pm - Reply

      I know, right? But, also, I thought it was hilarious that Mrs. Plummer’s letter goes on and ON about all the factors which she thinks should make Amabel reconsider and she still issues an invitation in the end. Which collection of hers do you have again? Montreal Stories?

  3. Naomi August 29, 2018 at 11:53 am - Reply

    I got a kick out of the fact that Mrs. Plummer is trying to save up her Bridge money to leave her husband. It’s depressing too, of course, since we know it’s not likely to happen.

    “Most lives are wasted. All are shortchanged. A few are tragic.” I have to wonder if Mavis Gallant shares her character’s view of life…

    I also noted this quote, which takes place between the two women the Colonel is listening to. “If you are not happy, it might be your fault.” Especially in comparison with the other quote.

    • Buried In Print August 29, 2018 at 12:21 pm - Reply

      Oh, right! Good point. I remember snorting at that one – in agreement – when I read it, but I forgot to flag it. I think that pair of young women is actually really important to understanding the story, but I feel like the post would have been twice as long had they found their place here. Do you think they would agree with Mrs. Plummer’s maxim? I had the feeling that she actually had enough money to leave but hadn’t (yet?): you?

      • Naomi August 29, 2018 at 1:58 pm - Reply

        I agree… I think her stash of money is for “just in case”. Maybe it makes her feel like she has options?

        • Buried In Print August 29, 2018 at 3:34 pm - Reply

          I wondered that, whether it just made it more bearable – so she was one of the shortchanged but not tragic. I also wondered if she simply liked to complain about it and can’t really imagine NOT having him to complain about. I wonder if we are simply supposed to think that the pair of girls looks more content and, maybe if we were in their heads, they wouldn’t be either?

          • Naomi August 30, 2018 at 5:43 pm - Reply

            Oh I like that. Like the girls are just saying what they think sounds good, rather than what they really think.

            • Buried In Print August 30, 2018 at 6:16 pm

              I also started to wonder, later, if they weren’t as girlish as I assumed. I can’t remember if we “see” them through all three characters’ perspectives. I imagine Amabel would think them very girly, being presumably free of a failed marriage, and the other two (feeling rather stodgy) probably would too. As usual, after chatting a little about it, now I feel like I need to reread. At least it’s a short-ish story. (But you’ve also convinced me to reread “My Heart is Broken” so I should do that first!)

  4. heavenali August 28, 2018 at 4:14 am - Reply

    Another fabulous sounding story from Mavis Gallant. I love narratives of this kind.

    • Buried In Print August 29, 2018 at 11:18 am - Reply

      This is a favourite of mine so far, too: the irony of each person thinking s/he is the one who is alone and shortchanged.

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