Grace Paley, one of the most respected twentieth-century writers in the United States, crafted beautiful short stories by using precise, evocative language. On just three pages, Paley exposes her narrator’s strengths and weaknesses, her past and her present, her needs and her desires in the story “Wants.”
Paley began publishing in the late 1950s, just as the second wave of the feminist movement began. Her works focus on the everyday lives of everyday women. For example, in “Wants,” the major action of the female narrator revolves around her returning an overdue library book. Paley provokes interest by revealing the fact that the book the narrator is returning is eighteen years overdue. In the process of returning the library book, the narrator runs into her ex-husband. Through their banter and the narrator’s interior monologue, readers come to understand how the narrator feels about this man, both from the perspective of when they were married and at the present moment of the story. After her husband leaves, the narrator becomes introspective and considers why she is so late in returning the book, why she has never even read it, and why she checks out the book again.
Through these seemingly simple gestures, Paley tells a story with surprising depth. Each word is carefully chosen to provide calculated weight and insight. The language that the narrator and her ex-husband exchange is authentic as well as telling. In the first few lines, for example, the narrator greets her ex-husband with the words “Hello, my life,” three words that suggest their shared history.
Paley was one of the first women in America to publish stories about women’s lives. Though she wrote less than fifty stories over her lifetime, she left an indelible mark on U.S. literature. “Wants” was published in her second collection, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, in 1974. The theme of the ordinariness of women’s lives, especially focusing on single mothers, runs through this and most of her other work. Paley was New York’s first official state author. Her Collected Stories, published in 1994, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.