Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Spencer’s story achieves much of its effect through the contrast of Ella and Eric as they are in their fifties with how they were thirty years earlier. This retrospective method allows for a reflection on the part of the middle-aged characters on what happened to them in their youth and in the intervening years. Because this is a first-person narrative, with all the events seen through the eyes of Ella Mason, the reader can only guess at the true feelings of the other characters that the narrator interprets for us. Henry James argued that one essential element for a good story or novel is a “fine central intelligence,” on whose judgment the reader can rely; in Ella, Spencer has created just such a figure. Her tone and the depth of her reflection on events and characters convince us that she is a reliable reporter of what has happened and what its significance may be.

Spencer is one of the most skillful of modern American short-story writers, and one of her strongest points is her ability to create credible characters with whom readers can empathize. Although her most perceptive portrayals are usually women, her male characters are often equally convincing. She has a feeling for the subtle interrelationships among people that often go undetected by any but the most sensitive observers. Ella, the “fine central intelligence” in “The Cousins,” comes as close as anyone can to understanding the implications of the events that occurred three decades before.