New Yorker fiction -- June 6, 2005 issue
A tale of two British classes colliding amid an early 1970s college romance. Neil grew up in a condemned Birmingham slum with a wall that leaked so much rain he and his sister had to sleep in their parents' room (she on a cot, he in their bed). Sheila is from a professional, educated household, daughter (one of five children) of a vicar in Suffolk. These two get involved at university in Bristol and both of them romanticize the other's background. Then we are shown how the collision plays out. There are two long scenes, the first detailing Sheila's visit to Neil's parents' home, the second his visit to hers.
Introducing Neil first is neatly deceptive, as it's gradually understood that he is a mysterious character for Sheila, and we draw closer to her as he becomes more distant. She loves him "quite desperately," especially for his "reserve, like a strength witheld," when it comes to his reluctance to exploit his humble background to score points with politically active students -- but the story shows how she has probably drawn the wrong conclusions about this. She is the one who wants to visit his parents, and imagines them as honest, blue-collar, salt of the earth folks. She is looking forward to it as a contrast because "for all her family's crowded closeness, neither her parents nor her siblings were any good at intimacy." Sheila "prepared a perfect openness for her visit to Neil's home, ready to offer up her real self at last."
The first visit appears to go well at first. She finds plenty to romanticize once she arrives in Neil's home, even the "cheap thin towels and bathmat," which are the same as the ones at her parents' house, except these had been "cherished and ironed." She recalls Neil saying his mother had been his confidante, staying up late talking to him and the friends he brought home. She envies this, but misses the Mama's Boy Alert. After dinner, in bed (she is lodged in his sister's room -- who is apparenly gone, unclear where or why unless I missed something), she becomes lonely and sneaks to Neil's room. There she tries quietly to initiate sex, and he'll have none of it. He's uncomfortable, as the walls are thin, and this is the first sign of tension. She gives up, and on her way back overhears his mother complaining, in a different voice "that must be her real voice 'How can I talk to her?... with that accent like a mouthful of cut glass.'" It's a little disappointing that we don't get much reaction from Shelia about this. She merely muses that Neil's mother has mixed up "talking through a mouthful of plums" and "an accent like cut glass." The overall impression is we have an only son with a close, protective mother. I would have liked more of Shelia's thoughts about these revelations.
But we're off to her house, out in the countryside, a messier, more chaotic, more "natural" family. She is disappointed that Neil gets along with her dad the vicar and talks intellectual stuff with him. In her family, the children, deathly afraid of a sermon, have cut off the parents from any intelligent conversation. She despises her mother's plain cooking; nice detail: a French cookbook she gave them as a gift sits unused on a shelf, "its pages gummed together by the steam of hundreds of pans of boiling potatoes." "How can you not see how awful they are?" she asks him. And, she accuses, "You closed your eyes when he prayed at the table last night."
By now the reader is completely drawn into Sheila's POV, and Neil is still really a stranger. I love how the author manages this. It's all given in carefully selected physical detail and dramatization. Except at the beginning, when we are getting background in a hurry, I think there is only one time in the whole piece that the author stoops to telling us what Sheila is feeling. Otherwise, we see it through action, as we should. "Sheila was walking backward ahead of him on the path, in her eagerness to convey to him the truth about her parents." And the way his father "was paying her subtle harmless attentions ... spooning sugar into her tea and smoothing creases out of her coat when he hung it up." Great stuff like that. Lots to re-learn about the supreme value of concretizing details in this story.
Unlike his family, she believes hers avoids intimacy, communicating in "evasive codes, fumbling and deflecting contact." This climaxes in a game of charades, which the stoic, industrial Neil has never played. He can't get the hang of it, but Sheila's family throws everything into it: costumes, props, and mounting, eccentric excitement. Neil is assaulted by (and the reader treated to) the vicar parading about in a green dress, for example. The POV switches briefly to Neil to underscore his discomfort at feeling "strong stirrings of desire" as he watches Sheila, in her father's silk robe (which she lets fall open) playing the part of a hairdresser, trying to kiss her own mother, who is dressed up as a shy boy with a moustache penciled in. A game of charades is a darned handy thing to have in a story. When the family is done, they sit "flushed and panting" and emit "shamed giggles." Yet even as the "Issues!" bell is going off in the reader's head, the sense is that this family is in some ways more authentic with their feelings, even if they have to couch them in theater. Sorry, theatre.
Then out in Nature, Neil believes they are alone and it's his turn to ask for sex, and it's Sheila's turn to get uncomfortable, sure that someone has been tracking their movements. Neither is comfortable being "sexy" on their home turf, then. And this is a little weird true thing that surely many of us have noticed in our own lives. There is a lot going on sexually under the surface of this story -- from Neil sleeping in his parents' bed to the cross-dressing and desire he feels at watching his girlfriend basically trying to seduce her own mother. The couple in fact never has sex in the story.
The final scene brings Sheila herself closer to reintegrating with her family, as she goes off to town with her sister Hilary to do something with Hilary's "mousy hair" (note she has kept the hairdresser character in this neat detail). As they slog through the damp, verdant countryside on their way home, the author (mistakenly in my opinion) does "tell" rather than "show" her transformation: "For the first time, Sheila experienced a rush of strong feeling for her home and past." No! We get it through the action. Trust the reader. Anyway, the two girls spy Neil through the window in the vicar's study as he listens to one of their brother's records. Outside the earth is choking itself on humid country imagery of decay, with "dead weeds" and "water seeping" into their socks; "the silky seed heads of flowers and swollen blackened pods, slashed down by wind and rain, lay dissolving in the earth." Hilary begins chucking rotten apples at the window to annoy Neil, and Sheila joins in, and this is the last image: Neil, in their father's study, separated more than ever from everyone, "a stranger" now, being pelted by rotted fruit. (Note to Ms. Hadley: Should be plums.) And the final image echoes the first one: Neil being assaulted by intruding, wet, messy Nature. In Birmingham, he was able to take shelter from the elements in his mother's bed -- in Suffolk he is trapped and isolated as Sheila and her sister join Mother Earth in trying to get access to him.
As for their relationship, it seems rockier at the end than at the beginning. I think maybe they don't make it, that Sheila has discovered more about herself. Neil, even in the house's "inner sanctum," is only paradoxically more remote from her in the end -- is in fact an object of ridicule and mockery. The two visits have destroyed each other's illusions and highlighted what they each turn out to have valued of their own childhoods.
The main problems I had with the piece were Sheila's lack of reaction to Neil's mother's overheard disparagement of her. What did that mean for her? Did she tell Neil? It seems she didn't. Couldn't that have sharpened the divide between them, bringing more to a head -- or is Sheila's own stoicism being advanced, and we are to respect her for overlooking this petty and disappointing event? That and more Hilary -- Hilary turns out to be important in the story, as she initiates and takes part in the final action. Hilary is suddenly revealed as the missing link to Sheila's rediscovered bond with her own family. Would have been nice to have a bit more of her earlier, so we have an even better idea what her imagistic combination with Sheila means for the story. And Hilary's strong ending presence reminded me that we know little of Neil's sister Chris, who'd be another chance at contrast -- but maybe the story is complicated enough as it is.
I like that the author basically takes some archetypes/cliches (Country Mouse, City Mouse, Oedipus, Wacky Rural Family, Blue-Collar icon -- he almost seems a socialist realist painting) and mixes them all up but good to see what happens. I think the story does a lot of things right in terms of foregrounding the action and playing visually and physically off the sharp differences between the families. There is a great deal of characterization of a number of people via slim but well-chosen details.
The story gained a lot from second reading. I don't know if that's good or not. Frank Conroy said you should never expect a second read, and if something comes through on a second pass that didn't on the first, it's a sign the thing isn't quite done. Then again, Frank was surely one of the greatest readers in the word, and I'm not. I can't really think of a good piece of writing that didn't get better in subsequent reads. Lots of details slip through the fingers of my brain on a first read and are put in a different sort of memory that enriches a second one. I appreciate a story like this one that pays off more than once -- I liked it better on second read. But in the end, I most admire the author's choice to tackle the subtle and maddening little habits and ruts of family life that weigh so heavily on one's preception of oneself.
(For another take on the story, check out The Marvelous Garden.)