There is no doubt Valerie Martin is a good writer, and she writes her short stories in the style that draws me in and makes it hard to stop reading. I finished “The Unfinished Novel and Other Stories” over the weekend trip to San Diego. A total of 6 short stories are in this book – the Unfinished Novel the longest of all. I think the last short stories I read before this book came directly from an assignment in high school. Short stories have never inspired my interest for the simple reason that I find it hard to connect with the characters in the span of 30 odd pages and the story generally makes a far less impact on me. Nonetheless, Valerie Martin writes strong prose in those pages, and the intensity of her characters evokes much interest in any average reader.
These are stories about artists, writers, painters, musicians, and professors who allow the intensity and elusiveness of their work to pull them away from reality and into a fantasy world. In the process, some create beautiful lasting art and achieve some semblance of greatness in their line of work, while the rest lose themselves in the process, abandon reality and the people in their lives, and feel unfulfilled and deserted from their world.
The stories are told from one of the characters in each short story, and this selective point of view gives each short story its own special taste. I wonder how each tale would have appeared from the other character’s viewpoint – the mysterious and curious one- the one that is described through the narrator with such an enigmatic persona – what would they tell us if they were the narrators? For me, the untold tidbits of these short stories give Martin’s work an alluring edge.
The short stories appear in the book in the order below:
His Blue Period:
The story of a painter who was influenced greatly by his former friend Meyer Anspach, whom Martin paints as the egotistical, unlikable, brash character of an extremely talented artist. The sad twist comes with Anspach’s live-in girlfriend Maria, whom he treated horribly and yet she refuses to leave him. The narrator is in love with Maria. What holds Maria down with her choice, is it the role of the muse for the artist which she holds far above a chance for love? Superbly written.
The Bower or rather the Affair if I could give it a new title. The Shakespeare play director who falls fast for one of her young rising stars, and the inevitable affair which ensues. The mind games that she plays with herself to justify her actions and allow her one more day or one more week of the sweetness of this clandestine romance before resuming her reality. The ending was unexpected, rather dismal, and surprisingly unrelated to the affair altogether. My favorite from this book.
Beethoven I found the least captivating of all. The narrator is a young woman who slowly gets involved with a disturbed painter living a few stories above her flat. A boring relationship ensues. The artist tries to sell a few pieces to a small store, and it is his painting of Beethoven’s visage that seems to draw the mild interest of the owner. The artist’s refusal to get out there to find an ordinary job to supplement his painting, and his obsession with an ex who hardly acknowledges his existence, made for a story that at least for me was very hard to connect with.
The Unfinished Novel:
This is a disturbing story of a reasonably successful novelist who encounters a former flame from school, one who seduced him, played with him, and vanished out of his life one day but not before stealing a lump sum of his savings. Rita is by all accounts a woman that is trouble and should be avoided at all costs, and yet he finds it impossible to decline her lurid proposals. The unfinished novel refers to the incomplete manuscript by Rita, a promising author who failed miserably through poor personal choices in life. The descriptions of Rita’s demeanor and her grotesque obesity are most repulsive to the narrator, and yet a strange desire to know more about her urges him to cross into unsafe territory. Disturbing and disgusting, I give tribute to a great author for my not being able to put this down.
The Open Door:
The story of lesbian lovers on vacation in Rome, the dynamics of Edit and Isabel are interesting. Isabel insists on living the dreamy life in Roma while Edith is not able to write a single line of prose in this country – “poet’s block” she thinks to herself and blames Rome for it. While Isabel romanticizes Rome, Edith is preparing reluctantly for the conference talk and the love-hate-love relationship goes on. The search for a place to belong and explore, and one that also inspires creativity in the artist and is also agreeable to partners in a relationship, makes for a heavy theme in a short story. Quite well-written, but less captivating than others stories.
This last short story is bizarre with an unexpected ending. The plot centers around a menopausal woman, angry at the world, irritable at her husband, and deeply absorbed in her art, to the exclusion of all social contact and all normalcy in daily living patterns. While she seems to be the main point of interest and drama and mystery – working late into the night and disappearing from the house with no explanations – with the husband as the narrator, it is a real twist that I still could neither comprehend nor appreciate, with which this short story comes to a sudden halt.
Reading is the best pastime for an active mind! If you like to see the other book reviews, check the index of In Print.