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Book Reviews

New Collection Celebrates Jean Stafford, A Gifted Novelist Who Deserved Better

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The Library of America

Jean Stafford. Generally speaking, it's one of those literary names that readers might find sort-of familiar, without quite knowing why.

That wouldn't have been the case in Stafford's heyday, during the 1940s and 50s. Back then, Stafford's short stories were published in prestigious venues like the Partisan Review and The New Yorker. A collected edition of those stories even won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1970.

Stafford's personal life also put her in the spotlight. She was married, in succession, to three literary men: most prominent among them, the poet Robert Lowell and New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling. The marriage to Liebling was the happiest; the marriage to Lowell was (no surprise) the most tortured.

While they were dating, a drunken Lowell crashed his car into a wall, crushing and fracturing Stafford's face and leaving her with lasting trauma. Stafford's first novel, Boston Adventure was published in 1944 when she was 29. It became a surprise bestseller; she and a resentful Lowell divorced a few years afterwards.

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Three biographies of Stafford were published in the wake of her death in 1979. But, for over the past two decades, she's mostly been written about as wife No. 1 in the many biographies and studies of Lowell that continue to be generated. Based even on just this new Library of America edition of her three novels, Stafford deserves better.

Boston Adventure, Stafford's debut, is like Charlotte Brontë's Villette, a raw depiction of female isolation. The novel's shrewd and tough main character, Sonia Marburg, is just entering adolescence when the story opens. With her miserable Russian- and German-immigrant parents, Sonia lives in a shack in a fishing village across the bay from Boston. In summertime, Sonia works with her mother as a chambermaid at a nearby hotel where she idolizes a wealthy guest named Miss Pride. Sonia's father deserts the family and her mother is packed off to a sanitarium after a bizarre wintertime excursion to the shuttered hotel, where she spends the night picking lint out of wicker chairs. Left alone, Sonia leaps at Miss Pride's invitation to move into her Beacon Hill mansion and be trained as a personal secretary.

But Miss Pride's promises of a larger life lead only to solitary servitude. Here's Sonia dissecting the behavior of some young society women with whom she socializes at a bohemian (and, supposedly, more democratic) music salon:

They behaved towards me with a warmth, a sincere interest which for many months deceived and flattered me so that I was at a loss to explain why they not only did not invite me to their own houses, ... [b]ut ... when I met them on the street, [they] likely as not ... cut me dead. It was the very lack of condescension, the tactful omission from their conversation of anything which might remind me, to my embarrassment, that I was not of the sisterhood that finally enraged me.

Ruminations like this one led early reviewers to compare Stafford's writing to that of Henry James and Marcel Proust. Like those masters of interiority and verbosity, Stafford could also take her sweet time telling a story. Boston Adventure runs close to 500 pages in this squinty Library of America edition. But what a rare story of squashed female aspiration Stafford slowly unfurls in those pages!

Let's skip over Stafford's uneven third novel, The Catherine Wheel, and focus on her masterpiece, The Mountain Lion, published in 1947. Stafford drew on her close relationship with her brother, Dick, who was killed in France during World War II, for this intense tale of siblings growing up on a California walnut farm. Molly is 8 and her older brother, Ralph, is 10 when they're felled by scarlet fever.

The pair survive, but they grow up "thin, pallid, and runny-nosed" and always looking "a little dirty." Gruff and unpopular, Molly and Ralph have "none but one another" for company until their Uncle Claude invites the pair to spend summers on his ranch in Colorado. As Ralph is drawn into the world of men, Molly armors herself with her eccentricities, for instance, obsessively collecting boxes of ladybugs and mailing them to a nearby agricultural college.

Stafford's most striking gift as a writer was her ability to create characters — unlovely outcasts — who simultaneously repel and call forth sympathy from her readers. These odd children who fill her three novels yearn, without success, to be seen and appreciated. As a consolation prize of sorts, however, Stafford ensured that we readers wouldn't be able to take our eyes away from them.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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