Susan Minot Essay - Critical Essays


In an eloquently understated style, Minot explores the enigmas of familial and romantic love under stress. Her short-story cycle Monkeys focuses on the tensions within a large patrician family, whose mother provides a model of how to maintain love and joy in the midst of a troubled marriage. Even as the anxieties of adolescence, the growing need to express independence, and loss threaten family unity, new rituals and allegiances can work to mitigate and even transcend these forces. Her depictions of heterosexual relationships in Lust, and Other Stories are less optimistic, however, as her female protagonists exhibit problems in coping with the gulf between the stirrings of desire and its romantic fulfillment in an ongoing relationship. Searching for commitment, they discover male attachment to be ephemeral and warily enter subsequent relationships emotionally wounded, seemingly fated to repeat self-destructive patterns.

Minot’s family portrait in Monkeys has been likened to J. D. Salinger’s Glass family, and her stories are clearly influenced by The New Yorker school of fiction. Her careful, polished, and somewhat understated style is marked by descriptive economy and a skillful use of detail, both of which provide oblique glimpses of her characters and develop ideas by implication. She notes that many of her stories begin in images and concurred with one interviewer’s observation that her work contains numerous images of hiding and secrets.

With her 1998 novel Evening, Minot noted that she had diverged from the direction of her previous work, moving toward exploring material she had sought out “rather than a sorting through of material or concerns which life had presented me.” The focus in her short fiction on the latter, however, has resulted in finely nuanced stories that exactingly anatomize the perplexities of uncertain relationships, whose contours are subtly shaped by influences of family and gender.


Monkeys, although labeled a novel by some critics, is a collection of nine interrelated stories—seven of which were previously published in The New Yorker and Grand Street. Singly, each story conveys a significant incident that threatens the precarious unity of a large, privileged New England family; together the stories chronicle the ebb and flow of that coherence, which threatens to undergo dissolution when the mother, who has served as its nucleus, dies.

Rose Vincent, the mother whose nickname for her children provides the collection’s title, provides love and continuity as she devises adaptation strategies to her husband Gus’s alcoholism. Gus is most often flummoxed by, distracted by, or indifferent to his active brood, although he must ultimately take charge after Rose’s death two-thirds of the way through the volume. The stories’ most frequent point of view is that of Sophie, the second daughter, although other stories are related in the third person or through the eyes of other family members, all struggling to discover themselves, while at the same time maintain the ties that knit them together.

“Hiding,” the volume’s best story, artfully depicts the family’s typical routine, with Gus characteristically aloof from its Sunday morning chaos before church. Later, on a skating excursion, the parents’ difference is highlighted in their styles on the ice: Gus, a former Harvard University hockey player, powers determinedly in strong straight lines, while Rose, a former figure skater, glides stylishly in figure eights, which the impatient Gus fails to appreciate. Back home, Rose leads the children in an impromptu game of hiding from their father; his failure to seek them out, however, leaves Rose to hide her disappointment from the children in a sudden burst of domestic activity.

Subsequent stories foreshadow the breaches...

(The entire section is 1601 words.)