Sunday, February 28, 2016

Eight Short Stories About Divorce or Separation

Title: Access to the Children
Author: William Trevor
Where I Read It: Dumped

"Access to the Children" is primarily a story of regret and delusion. The main character had an affair and left his wife and kids. After his lover leaves him, he becomes desperate for what he gave up. He sees his kids every Sunday, but throughout the story there's little sense that he knows them. He's taken to drinking heavily and settling them in front of a TV until it's time to take them home.

What he clings to is the hope that his ex-wife will forgive him and take him back. He insists that this will happen; he's even predicted a date for it. Meantime, he drinks. His alcoholism simultaneously fuels his delusions and serves as proof that he's deluded. His complete self-destruction isn't inevitable, but it's likely. And though the story doesn't show him lashing out violently at anyone, it remains a possibility, a deep unease stirred up by the thoughts of a destructive man.

Title: Amor Divino
Author: Julia Alvarez
Where I Read It: The Art of the Story

The main character, Yolanda, is going through a divorce while living near her grandpa, who has dementia. She is one of several Yolandas in her family, including her grandpa's late wife. Stories run in parallel in "Amor Divino" - the young Yolanda and her soon-to-be-ex-husband, and her grandma, Yolanda, and her grandpa, with their love that was legendary in the family (though the image of their famous love fractured when her grandma fell ill and railed bitterly out of her illness at the end of her life).

Love manifests in unexpected moments, sometimes when there's desperation for it, a need to see it realized a certain way. In this story it feels like a narrow stream that disappears for long stretches underground and surfaces, from time to time, in brilliant, harsh light.


Title: Autre Temps...
Author: Edith Wharton
Where I Read It: Mothers & Daughters

Drawing on the NYC upper classes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Wharton works with delicate threads - feelings that her characters think are too impolite to mention, quiet but devastating betrayals, rules that are assumed but rarely discussed.

The main character, Mrs. Lidcote, got divorced years ago; her social circle shunned her, and she moved overseas. Now her daughter, Leila, has gotten divorced. Mrs. Lidcote heads back to New York to offer moral support, only to realize that Leila isn't at risk from the same kind of ostracism; Leila in fact seems very much at ease and is set to remarry. This leads Mrs. Lidcote to wonder if the social ban placed over her has been lifted. If the times have changed, maybe she can slip back into polite society after her years abroad. What she comes up against are yards of stanchion rope, keeping her out.

Wharton depicts the art of snubbing; it's so difficult to object to these snubs, because no one talks about it or dismisses you to your face. Mrs. Lidcote is also trapped for another reason: the traditions and thoughts of this social circle are the only ones she really knows. In the broader world, they may not mean as much, but Mrs. Lidcote's world doesn't seem to have broadened much, even after she moved overseas. Even though she's an outcast, she remains governed by this society and its arbitrary judgments. Maybe she never tried to break away from it out of concern for her daughter, who remained behind; also, any kind of radical change to her values or character would be tremendously difficult.

Title: Here Come the Maples
Author: John Updike
Where I Read It: The Granta Book of the American Short Story

A couple gets divorced, and Updike isn't interested in all the details of why it happened. It isn't a rancorous divorce. Updike sets up the ceremony of the divorce, in its courthouse setting, to mirror the ceremony of the marriage. He's interested in the dismantling of the relationship – how its structure, which involves more than the two people at its heart, needs to get taken down. He's good at writing about these seemingly gentle, massive breaks.

Title: The Ladder
Author: V.S. Pritchett (Victor Sawdon Pritchett)
Where I Read It: A Walk in My World

The main reason I found this story memorable was how the characters express their feelings indirectly through architecture and home layout. A girl, her dad, and her new stepmother (formerly her dad's secretary) share a house. The dad has initiated renovations, something his first wife had asked for. The second wife doesn't really stand a chance. As a wife, she's changed her persona from brisk, efficient secretary to a deliberately helpless creature. Her marriage to the dad seems doomed from the beginning. All it takes to end it is for the daughter to move a ladder. There's a wryness to the story I enjoyed; it's the right tone for these passive-aggressive characters.

Title: Making Arrangements
Author: Elizabeth Bowen
Where I Read It: Dumped

Hewson Blair, a stodgy man from an upper class background, married a younger woman who has now run off with her lover. Blair's marriage was passionless, ensconced in wealth and routine. At the start of "Making Arrangements," he receives a letter from his wife requesting that he have her dresses packed up and sent to her. She compliments him for his talent in making efficient arrangements, and tells him that it's for the best that their marriage ended, as they were incompatible.

Blair initially reacts to the letter with equanimity. But when he ventures into his wife's room and looks through her wardrobe, he enacts a revenge on her through her dresses. His violent erotic fit is maybe the closest he's come to passion in years. And it takes place when he's alone, among objects he's bought.

Title: The Other Two
Author: Edith Wharton
Where I Read It: Great American Short Stories: From Hawthorne to Hemingway

Waythorn's wife, Alice, has been divorced twice. Both ex-husbands are still alive and have a claim to at least part of her life and attention. Even tiny details are significant, like how Alice one time makes Waythorn's coffee the way a former husband preferred it. The story has a humorous tone, and Waythorn ultimately makes the best of being a third husband. He's unsettled by the mysteries in his wife and the limits of their intimacy; but he admires her adaptability and her composure when faced with awkward situations.

Title: Separating
Author: John Updike
Where I Read It: American Voices

Here we have John Updike dismantling another marriage. The husband has cheated, but Updike doesn't go into details or explore the whys of the separation. The story focuses on how the husband confronts the breakdown of the relationship and struggles with the stress of taking apart the marriage: telling the teenaged kids about the decision and moving out.

Suddenly he can't handle the idea of leaving. Is it because the change itself is too enormous and difficult, or because telling the kids will be painful? Maybe he perceives the extent of what he and his wife have lost, and now regrets the deterioration of their relationship. What he built with his wife over the course of their marriage, what did it all mean? Confusion predominates over concrete answers.

The kids' different reactions also make the story interesting. Although their dad will stay in the same town, they're now faced with reorganizing their lives, revising their sense of themselves as a family, and changing their conceptions of their parents. The kids differ in how accepting of the separation they appear; however, many of their thoughts remain unspoken.

2 comments:

Brian Joseph said...

Great commentary on these stories.

I find stories about such separations generally troubling. With that, the subject makes for such interesting fiction. Art is often at its best when it describes pain and pathos.

HKatz said...

Thanks, Brian. Yeah, this topic isn't easy to read about, but there are many ways authors can approach it.