Stealing Time

Mary Grimm’s fictional milieu is the life of the middle-class American female—from first kiss, to first sex, to first divorce—mostly told in first-person narratives by detached young women who have experienced such things. Grimm seems to know these women well, and their experiences have the ring of reality, but Grimm’s narratives read more like slice-of-life snippets of everywoman’s life stages than like artistically sound short stories. They lack the human complexity and aesthetic inevitability that good short stories must have. A description of a young woman’s first sexual experience, as mere experience, will not make a great short story, any more than an account of the birth of her first child, if the basic human mystery of such experiences are not explored and evoked.

Take the story “We,” which was selected as one of the hundred most distinguished short stories of 1988 by BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES and won a National Magazine Award for THE NEW YORKER when it was published there in 1988. Whereas the story is a sound synopsis of the young American woman’s search for meaning in married life—from sex to recipes, from sewing to book clubs, from classes in calligraphy to caring for kids—it is little more than a summary of a stereotyped pattern.

As a literary form, the short story has to be exactly right or it is merely ordinary. Too many of Mary Grimm’s stories are merely ordinary. Although Grimm is a sensitive observer and a skilled craftsperson, her talents may be more appropriate for the novel than for the short story, for although the stories in this collection are realistic accounts of real-life women, they do not have the focus or the impact that the short story demands.