The title of Maxine Kumin’s collection of short stories—Why Can’t We Live Together Like Civilized Human Beings?—is, to some extent, ironic, since her characters, with only minor exceptions, are very humane, highly civilized people. In fact, one of the delights of reading this book is watching these characters cope with—or even triumph over—circumstances that test their humanity. Most of the stories deal with marriage, family, or friendship, and each approaches its themes in a quintessentially civilized way. When her characters commit adultery, for example, it is not through loathing of the marriage partner; violent quarrels hardly exist. The shy mycology professor in “On This Short Day of Frost and Sun,” who has a two-day affair with a dancer visiting his school, seems not so much dissatisfied with his wife as understandably drawn to the vibrant visitor, herself an amateur mycologist. Her own marriages, both failed, offer only poignant sadness—not intense grief—and she is “grateful that neither [husband] bore her any ill will.” In the title story, a Socialist film director who helps his wife defect to her lover shows an altruism that ennobles his grief. When the lovers in “Another Form of Marriage” do quarrel, the anger is relegated to the characters’ remembrances: violence is kept firmly offstage in Kumin’s works, allowing her to explore the more subtle reasons behind people’s actions.
In her stories about families, Kumin’s understatement highlights suppressed tensions more than extravagant gesture would. “The Neutral Love Object” shows an uneasy relationship between a wife and husband and their daughter and son-in-law, who are spending the summer with them. When they go out to dinner they “run out of comfortable small talk,” since the only neutral subjects they have are “pornography, pantsuits, athletics, animals.” The daughter’s marriage seems shaky, but the most tangible sign of this shakiness is her constant correction of her husband’s English—he was a foreign-exchange student—which causes her mother acute embarrassment. Like many of Kumin’s stories, this one offers a reconciliation based on the sheer niceness of her characters. When their classically named dog is missing before their return from a trip, the whole family can grieve together: “And thus the family mourned Agamemnon.”
“The Missing Person” celebrates independence rather than family unity: a wife becomes separated from her husband in a large city where they have gone to see their former daughter-in-law—their only son died in Vietnam—in a play. The wife is “reclusive” and the routines she has established (growing and preserving things) suggest that she has not really adjusted to her son’s death. As she copes with the rigors of her husband’s disappearance—policemen who refuse to declare him missing until twenty-four hours have passed; hoodlums who perch on a car near hers and pass a bottle back and forth—she grows in strength until she feels a certain euphoria at realizing she has survived her ordeal and coped. Suddenly, her life seems to fall into place: “She has forced the city to declare Alan a Missing Person twelve hours ahead of schedule. She knows now that Jay has been dead all these years.”
Many of Kumin’s stories about families explore the complex relationships between mothers and daughters. To Kumin’s credit, she is not doctrinaire about this subject, nor does she highlight only the problems that mothers and daughters encounter. A good case in point is “The Facts of Life,” in which a mother, whose preadolescent girls are awaiting the onset of menstruation, “itchy with the work of sprouting,” awaits her own mother’s death in a nearby hospital and tries to make sense of her childhood. Only after her mother dies and her uncle tells her a grotesque story of her mother’s youth, ending in a “therapeutic abortion,” is her repressive childhood explained. Kumin’s characters can learn from their past, however, and several days later, when her daughter has her first menstrual period, they rejoice: “Women together, we try to keep the celebration down to a dull roar.” One feels that this woman will never make the mistakes with her daughters that her mother made with her.
Kumin shows mothers and daughters occasionally at odds but always drawn to each other for emotional support. In “West,” the reader sees a widow running a farm while worrying about her two daughters, one recently divorced and one missing from her United Nations job in Uganda. As she reminisces about their past—meditation is a common element in these stories—she remembers all the “anguish and tenderness” of their moments of crisis: “the sisters call each other day and night. The mother calls the daughters, who tell her not quite what they tell each other. The daughters call the mother; then they must check back with each other.” While recording the small elements of deceit inherent in these calls, Kumin also shows the great affection involved. The mother...
(The entire section is 2067 words.)