This fall has brought us a rare, beautiful phenomenon: the appreciation of two great women writers in their 70s. Of the two, Joan Didion is by far the better known, but line by line, Edith Pearlman is every bit her equal. And thanks to the National Book Foundation, which recently chose her spectacular short story collection “Binocular Vision” as a finalist for this year’s fiction award, she may yet find the audience that she deserves.
What makes Pearlman so good? Like Didion, she’s a master of the spare sentence, of the restrained emotion. “His eyes didn’t sting, really; they remembered stinging,” she writes of a father ambushed by memories of his children. And in the tear that doesn’t fall, we find not only the father’s tenderness but also his self-denial.
“Cautious words make the story convincing,” Pearlman once told an interviewer. So does the calm detachment with which she presents her characters and their dilemmas. Perhaps there was something about growing up in the wake of the Great Depression and in the midst of World War II that made for such economical, dispassionate writers. But where Didion’s detachment can feel ruthless, Pearlman’s is largely compassionate, sometimes even faintly amused. It is the detachment of a good psychologist or a favorite aunt, the kind whose home you want to visit again and again.
“They had many things in common, the man of sixty-seven and the girl of seventeen,” Pearlman begins one my favorite stories, “Girl in Blue with Brown Bag.” It’s an opening that made me chuckle, yet by the end of the tale, I loved this odd-couple friendship, which has so little to do with age or sex and so much to do with loyalty and conversation.
Romance does appear in Pearlman’s collection, but more often she prefers to write about resilience. “Accommodation,” she has said, “is my favorite theme.” It’s an idea that generally gets short shrift these days, when so many people prefer the ideals of rebellion or self-realization. Few would feel, as Pearlman’s character in “Settlers” does, that “a flexibility achieved late in life, after unhappiness and disappointment” is something to be proud of.
Yet hasn’t our Great Recession taught us that some circumstances are largely beyond our control? And isn’t it admirable to make the best of things nevertheless, as do the World War II refugees in “Purim Night,” transforming cigarette wrappers and blackberry jam into joyous costumes and pastries?
For Pearlman’s characters rarely buckle under disappointment. Their accommodations are not about turning tail; they allow ways of continuing forward. “They’ll recover, nu, if God is willing, maybe if he isn’t, if he just looks the other way,” says a doctor surveying the patients in a tuberculosis ward. “Choose life. Isn’t it written?”
Choosing life. That’s what Pearlman’s characters — widows, historians, children, musicians, social workers, cancer patients, computer programmers — do over and over again. This may be why the collection’s final story, “Self-Reliance,” is so haunting. In it, a retired doctor in her early 70s decides not to treat her resurgent cancer, and not to wait for death, either.
Is this breaking of one’s own life an accommodation or a defiance? Perhaps it is neither. Pearlman’s characters are mostly solitary animals, who prize their independence even as they seek and enjoy the company of others. Yet many of them hold to a kind of moral standard.
“They were bound to the code of their youth,” one of her narrators explains. “Self-denial and honor and fidelity — an inconvenient code that would keep them, she realized with a pang,” from achieving their greatest happiness. Reading “Binocular Vision” one remembers why such an old-fashioned sacrifice might be worth it after all.
Valdes is a board member of the National Book Critics Circle and a frequent contributor to The Washington Post.
Edith Pearlman will give the 2011 PEN/Malamud Award Reading at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington on Dec. 2. For information go to http://www.folger.edu.
New & Selected Stories
By Edith Pearlman
Lookout. 376 pp. Paperback, $18.95