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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 431

It is difficult to say definitively whether “Ceil,” one of the three stories in Women and Angels , is a success. Some would question whether it is a story or merely a collection of fragments. “Lila” and “Largely an Oral History of My Mother,” both depictions of Brodkey’s adoptive mother,...

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It is difficult to say definitively whether “Ceil,” one of the three stories in Women and Angels, is a success. Some would question whether it is a story or merely a collection of fragments. “Lila” and “Largely an Oral History of My Mother,” both depictions of Brodkey’s adoptive mother, are more complete works.

Despite this caveat, “Ceil” is among Brodkey’s most important works, for it reveals more than any other story the inner Brodkey, who yearns to establish a link with his past. Although the writing in “Ceil” is uneven, some of Brodkey’s best images appear in the story, particularly when he writes about the great plains of the Midwest near Staunton, where his mother lived.

Ceil was the youngest of twenty or twenty-five children. Her father was a charismatic, highly intelligent rabbi, and her mother was remembered as long-suffering and remarkably fertile. Born in Russia near Odessa, Ceil was her father’s favorite. He arranged a marriage for her, but she refused to go through with it. She was a bright, independent girl who, after her father had simultaneously forgiven her and put a curse upon her, set sail from Odessa for New Orleans.

Upon her arrival in New Orleans, Ceil goes directly to the beauty shop. Unhappy with the result, she is in another beauty salon within an hour, having it redone. Although appearances are important to her, success means more to her than anything else. She moves quickly from being a waitress to a housemaid to a successful businesswoman.

She is married to Max, a man much beneath her, who is originally from the Odessa area. Her success becomes legendary. Her self-satisfaction culminates with the birth of her son. Soon afterward, she falls ill and dies after a painful and lingering hospital confinement.

Brodkey strives in this story to capture a background of which he has only glimmerings. He sketches scenes of Russia by quoting passages from Anton Chekhov. He searches his own subconscious and resurrects a faint memory of having lived with his mother in a wooden house beside a single railway track; he recalls how its rooms shook as trains passed.

Part of “Ceil” is little more than fragmentary snatches, short single paragraphs set off from the rest of the story. Another part consists of italicized conversations with Lila or Ruthie, Wiley’s adoptive mother and grandmother. What emerges is an incomplete portrait of a long-dead woman who necessarily remains sketchy in the eyes of her grown son. Part of Brodkey’s creative genius is his ability to capture this quality so well.

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