In “Health and Guidance” class, the teacher goes up and down the rows, asking what the students had for breakfast.
In fact, this is one more way in which to articulate and reinforce the differences between town and country.
On the country-side of the classrooms, students ate fried potatoes, bread and corn syrup, tea and porridge, tea and fried eggs and cottage roll.
On the town-side, students ate bacon and eggs, Corn Flakes, waffles and syrup, and even orange juice, sometimes.
Or, at least, that’s what they said they ate.
For certainly Rose said that she ate a half a grapefruit, seeking to ally herself with the town-side of the classroom.
But she did not. It’s pretense.
“They didn’t go in much for fresh fruit. A few spotty bananas, small unpromising oranges. Flo believed, as many country people did, that anything not well-cooked was bad for the stomach.”
They ate tea and porridge. Grapefruit weren’t even sold in the store. It was unthinkable, “as bad as drinking champagne”.
“Rose was pleased with herself for thinking of the grapefruit and with the way she had said it, in so bold, yet natural, a voice.”
But a few days later, she is taunted over it. Even a few years later, she hears the phrase “Half-a-grapefruit!” called in her direction.
And she pretends not to have heard, not to have been disgraced. More pretending. What is real and what is pretense, and where is the line between?
Rose does not fit with either the country- or the town-students. She does not fit with either Flo’s expectations of her as a girl, nor with her father’s expectations. Perhaps she feels she has no choice but to pretend.
“A woman ought to be energetic, practical, clever at making and saving; she ought to be shrewd, good at bargaining and bossing and seeing through people’s pretensions.”
This is how Rose’s father thinks a woman should be. Rose knows that she falls short of this.
He knows about “her need for flaunting, her high hopes of herself, her gaudy ambitions”. Rose is not growing into a proper woman.
“At the same time she should be naïve intellectually, childlike, contemptuous of maps and long words and anything in books, full of charming jumbled notions, superstitions, traditional beliefs.”
Neither is this Rose. But, at the same time, Rose’s father is proud of her bookishness, and he laughs at Flo’s charming jumbled notions.
Rose is “female but mistakenly so”, landing on the wrong side of all expectations even when there is a smidge of pride attached to her missteps.
The stories she relays to Flo are stories in which she plays “a superior, an onlooker’s part”. But “Half a Grapefruit” is the story of a misstep. Rose has played a superior part, but she has been caught out. She has been recognized as a pretender.
But it’s not the young Rose who is telling this story. Had it been, the story would likely not have been told. Flo is the one who tells stories that are not-so-thinly-veiled warnings, stories about errors in judgement that she has made. The young Rose keeps those stories to herself.
But here, in “Half a Grapefruit”, young Rose casts herself in another light. She recalls another instance in which she appeared to be “refusing all deceptions”, drawing a contrast with the classroom scene.
She “dramatized her own part in it, saw herself clear-eyed and unsurprised”, one who was “young in years but old in bitter experience of life. In such a spirit she had said lung cancer.”
But is Rose any less of a pretender in this scene? Or is she still sitting in the last seat of a row of town-students, hoping that nobody sees the holes in her story?
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s story collection Who Do You Think You Are?, which will continue on subsequent Thursdays. Please feel free to join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week: “Wild Swans”. My Alice Munro reading project began with Dance of the Happy Shades, followed by Lives of Girls and Women, and Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You, and I aim to read through her work to date. She is one of my MRE authors.
Next week’s story is “Wild Swans”. Care to join in?