Bliss Broyard, daughter of the late literary critic Anatole Broyard, began her writing career as her father lay dying of cancer. A friend of the elder Broyard repaid an old debt, and the younger Broyard used the money to enroll in a creative writing class at Harvard Extension School. Out of this class came the title story in the collection, My Father, Dancing. Her stories have appeared in journals such as Ploughshares and Grand Street, as well as in The Pushcart Anthology and Best American Short Stories 1998. Bliss Broyard’s reminiscence of her father, published in the anthology Personals: Dreams and Nightmares From the Lives of Twenty Young Writers (1998), edited by Thomas Beller, has been consistently noted as the finest piece of writing in the book. Broyard’s first book, My Father, Dancing, met with high praise from reviewers and from readers. Norah Vincent, for example, writing for The Baltimore Sun, called the collection “a startlingly good and enjoyable literary debut from a writer whose ripening talents exist quite apart from, or perhaps even in spite, [sic] of her father’s famous name.”
Of the eight stories in the book, four focus on father-daughter relationships. In the other four stories, young women approach relationships with lovers, or would-be lovers. Broyard’s fathers are larger than life, often overwhelming their quieter, less confident daughters. In this world, fathers and daughters both suffer and enjoy their connections to each other. The daughters all seem to want to please their fathers in some way, and the fathers seem unable or unwilling to be pleased. Nevertheless, the characters in these stories do not degenerate into stereotypical renditions of either fathers or daughters. The young women in the other stories also seem anxious to win approval from the men with whom they interact. It is perhaps troubling that none of the young female protagonists seems able to take charge of her life; rather, each acts in response to the male presence in the story.
The father-daughter stories form the backbone of the collection. The most notable is the title story, “My Father, Dancing.” In this story, a young female narrator named Kate reflects on her life with her father as he lies in a hospital room dying of prostate cancer. The story is largely autobiographical; Broyard’s father died of prostate cancer. In an essay written for her publisher, entitled “Building Stories,” Broyard describes how she came to write the story of her father’s illness and death that grew into “My Father, Dancing.” She writes,
I wasn’t trying to make sense of the experience of losing my father, because the death of someone you love cannot be understood, only borne. Rather, it was as if I were trying to build a structure to house my feelings and memories, with a floor that could hold weight and with walls and a ceiling so that other people might venture inside.
Broyard structures “My Father, Dancing” around Kate’s memories of dancing with her father interspersed with scenes of him in the hospital. This structure provides for a heartbreaking, marked contrast between the man smoothly moving across the floor and the man in the hospital bed who wants to go home. Kate describes the feeling of dancing with her father, the way the two of them could communicate with each other without talking. “On those dance floors over the years, we told each other more about ourselves than in any conversation,” Kate reveals. Like the other daughters in the collection, she looks to her father for signs of approval. She says that she used her father as “a mirror to understand what I looked like to the world.” By so doing, she becomes a reflection of her father’s judgments.
When she was young, Kate’s father told her that he wanted to be the first man to break her heart “because then he could ensure that at least it would be done gently.” The heartbreak that Kate’s father gives her, however, is not as he might have imagined. As he lies dying, he does not make a sign that he knows she is there. While she sits with him in the hospital, she holds his hand:
As I waited for some sign that he was aware of me, I thought it had boiled down to this: all I wanted from him was a simple squeeze of his fingers. As I waited and did not receive any sign, I realized that he was breaking my heart and it wasn’t gentle at all.
The story is filled with wrenching scenes. Any adult daughter who has beheld her father’s nakedness and fragility in an open hospital gown, had to turn a deaf ear to her father’s pleas to get him...
(The entire section is 1892 words.)