Gina Berriault’s stories resonate with ambiguity. She provides intimate views of characters facing personal crises, rising or falling in the face of them, and often confronting sometimes unpleasant truths about their identities, values, and personal relationships. Yet her characters remain, in the most realistic sense, unfinished and in process. They regard themselves and their world with ambivalence and uncertainty. Berriault is not interested in creating neatly resolved endings or establishing clear-cut winners versus losers. A sampling of themes in these stories suggests the range of experiences and personal crises her characters face: perhaps it will be a journey or a kind of spiritual pilgrimage, a reunion, a discovery of the fallibility or imperfections of a parent or family member, a feeling that the expectation of a perfect passion in one’s life has gone unrealized, an encounter between people from seemingly different worlds, a realization that one is trapped in a relationship that allows for no freedom or potential, an attempt to recapture what had once been achieved earlier in life, a realization that one’s trust in certainty has been broken, or a resetting of goals and a lowering of expectations. These themes embrace some of the darker sides of human character and personal relationships. Berriault neither sugarcoats nor idealizes the human condition.
One of Berriault’s gifts as a short story writer is her ability to craft an opening paragraph that lays out the essential plot questions of the story and captures the essence of a character’s conflicts, thus tantalizing readers to forge ahead and figure out how the characters came to find themselves so trapped, lost, confused, angry, or vulnerable. In “God and the Article Writer,” readers learn that a man’s marriage is ending and that his sixteen-year-old son had held a shotgun on his father while the latter was in bed. “The Bystander” begins with a man’s elderly father assaulting a woman in a rooming house and then running out into the streets naked. In “Death of a Lesser Man” a husband’s sudden seizure at a party is mistaken at first for a drunken episode of low comedy. In “Sublime Child” a man’s absence at the funeral of his mistress provokes at first feelings of anger and resentment on the part of family and friends, and then sympathy when they realize how much the woman’s teenaged daughter wanted him to be present. In each of these stories Berriault springs the plot and allows readers to explore the consequences of these relationships. Encountering these characters and their crises often provokes the questions, “Why did this happen?”, “How did it begin?”, or “How will they resolve this crisis?”
A major theme in this collection is the frustration felt by characters whose passions and potential have gone unrealized. None of their dreams have come true. They have been unable to live their lives according to high ideals, have failed to achieve lofty goals, and they lack the serenity and grace of fulfilling careers, enduring relationships, strong family ties, and an overall sense of “accomplishment” in their lives. It would be unfair to characterize these individuals as “losers,” but most of the characters encountered in these stories seem to feel they have failed in their lives. In “Stolen Pleasures” an older sister is trapped by the circumstances of caring for an ailing mother, and her younger sister comes to realize that her older sister’s chances for happiness have been lost because she chose self-sacrifice over self-interest. A middle-aged classical guitarist in “Nights in the Gardens in Spain” realizes that he will never rise above the heights of mediocrity. In “Around the Dear Ruin” a man’s sister marries a merchant seaman in a near panic because she feels life has passed her by and none of her dreams have been realized. A woman spends her fortieth birthday making the rounds at various bars in “Bastille Day”, insinuates her way into an old acquaintance’s bedroom, but then is compelled to sleep in his bed while he sleeps on the sofa because the man has no interest in friendship or sex. The frustrated passions of the woman in “Death of a Lesser Man” send her on an ill-advised and obsessive pilgrimage to France to seek out her idol, the great writer Albert Camus. The main character in “Wilderness Fire” deals with her mediocrity as an actress and the break- up of her marriage to a promising novelist by returning home to the consoling arms of her mother. The main character in Myra barely survives a dead-end marriage with an uncaring husband.
Berriault often is at her most effective when she integrates action that is plot-driven with long interior monologues that allow characters to reveal the inner workings of their motivations. When the point of view of characters is incorporated, their voices almost always turn inward, and they constantly probe their emotions and behaviors, looking for answers, resolutions, justifications. For instance, the title story,...
(The entire section is 2050 words.)