Gina Berriault 1926-
American short story writer, novelist, and scriptwriter.
Berriault is best known for brief short stories in which she utilizes detached, economical prose to empathetically but unsentimentally portray a wide variety of characters in crisis situations. Unable to enact change on their own behalf or to articulate their feelings of loss, despair, and loneliness, Berriault's protagonists often suffer in isolation. Addressing psychological, emotional, and existential concerns, Berriault's stories frequently examine such subjects as lack of intimacy, reality and illusion, failed familial and sexual relationships, and unrealized expectations. Berriault's stories are collected in The Mistress, and Other Stories (1965), The Infinite Passion of Expectation (1982), and Women in Their Beds (1996), the latter of which won the 1997 Book Critics Circle Award for fiction and the 1997 PEN/Faulkner Award.
Berriault was born in Long Beach, California, to Russian Jewish immigrants. She grew up during the Depression, and her father, who worked as a marble cutter and later as a writer, was not always able to secure employment. Her mother went blind when Berriault was fourteen years old, an event that Berriault has suggested influenced her writing. When Berriault was young, she loved reading books, and she started to write her own stories when she was in grammar school. After graduating from high school, Berriault worked various jobs, including clerk, waitress, and news reporter. She first attracted attention as a writer in 1958 when seven of her stories were collected in Scribner's Short Story 1. Berriault was awarded a fellowship from the Centro Mexicano de Escritores in Mexico City, where she lived and wrote in 1963. During the 1960s, she also wrote articles for Esquire magazine. Berriault has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University and Ohio University and received an appointment as a scholar at the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Berriault's first short story collection, The Mistress, and Other Stories, includes fifteen stories, most of which were previously published in magazines. Often set in the San Francisco Bay area in California, the stories examine such subjects as grief, despair, loneliness, and sexual conflict. "The Stone Boy," for example, centers on a nineyear-old boy, Arnold, who ostensibly shows no remorse for accidentally shooting and killing his brother. Because Arnold is unable to show his grief, he is virtually shunned by the community and everyone in his family except his grandfather. "The Diary of K. W." is the story of a sixty-three-year-old woman who has no friends or relatives, is unable to keep a job, and is dying of starvation. Written in diary form over several weeks, K.W.'s musings reveal that she was once married and successful but is now so immobilized by fear, loneliness, and poverty that she is unable to ask for help. Another story in the collection, "Death of a Lesser Man," examines the ambivalence an attractive young woman feels toward her terminally ill, older husband as she contemplates the possibility of taking a lover. The Infinite Passion of Expectation gathers twenty-five pieces written over a span of more than two decades, with twelve of the stories previously appearing in The Mistress, and Other Stories. "Myra" focuses on a young black woman who, passionately in love with her husband, continues to clean, cook, and care for him despite his indifference toward her and her pregnancy. "The Infinite Passion of Expectation," the title of which is taken from a work by Danish philosopher S0ren Kierkegaard, tells the story of a young waitress whose seventy-nine-year-old psychologist asks her to marry him. When she denies his request, he calls her "cold" and tells her "you will never be loved." Women in Their Beds contains thirty-five stories, many of which were first published in magazines and journals. Like her previous collections, this volume focuses on a wide variety of characters and experiences. "Who Is It Can Tell Me Who I Am?", for example, centers on a dapper librarian who believes a young drifter he has befriended plans to kill him, and "Stolen Pleasures" features a poor young girl who becomes preoccupied with her wealthy friend's piano.
Berriault's short stories have not received much critical attention, but some commentators speculate that with the publication of the award-winning Women in Their Beds, her work in the genre will begin to generate the wide critical and popular recognition it deserves. The critical reaction Berriault has received, particularly early in her career, has been mixed, with some critics describing Berriault's stories as overly pessimistic and her prose style as too precise and intellectual. Some reviewers have also faulted the brevity of her stories, sometimes negatively referring to them as "miniatures" or "watercolors." Most critics, however, have commended her convincing and unsentimental depiction of the emotional and psychological hardships of her characters. In particular, critics have praised what they have called her amazing range of characters, noting that she is able to convincingly write from both male and female viewpoints and that her characters come from all social, ethnic, and economic backgrounds. Despite past ambivalence toward Berriault's work, some critics continue to assert that Berriault's short fiction will become increasingly appreciated and influential. Andre Dubus, for example, has called The Infinite Passion of Expectation "the best book of short stories by a living American author." Similarly, Gary Amdahl has stated that Berriault, "having written so beautifully and so consistently for nearly forty years, ought to be as familiar to us as Toni Morrison and John Updike."