NINE WOMEN. By Shirley Ann Grau. Knopf. 204 pp. $15.95.
IN THESE nine short stories -- her first story collection in more than a dozen years -- Shirley Ann Grau is writing about women in moments of decision and crisis. They are women of different circumstances and ages, but they have in common a Southern upbringing that stresses manners, decorum and reticence, as well as an awareness that their lives have reached moments they cannot avoid and from which they cannot turn back. Their crises vary in magnitude, from questions of identity to matters of life and death, but each of them has to make a choice, whether conscious or not, that will permanently alter her life.
Grau is now and always has been deeply concerned with the lives of women, but it would be a mistake to characterize her as a "feminist" writer. n the first place there has never been a hint of rhetoric or dogma in her work; she is among other things kindly disposed toward men, and disinclined to dismiss them as brutes or oppressors. Beyond that, she is in the best and broadest sense of the term a domestic writer, one whose principal subject is family life in all its complexities and who prefers to examine her characters in human rather than political terms.
A characteristic story -- and in my judgment the finest in the book -- is "Letting Go." Its protagonist, Mary Margaret McIntyre, is a young married woman who each week comes to her parents' house: "I come every Wednesday for supper and the novena. Perpetual novena. That was how I learned what eternity was -- like the novena, it goes on and on without end." Her husband does not come with her, because for no good reason he is despised and ridiculed by her hard, narrow, self-satisfied mother and father. Wednesday nights are a form of torture for her, yet she comes because "I have honored (my parents) for all my twenty-nine years, and I am not about to stop now." Finally, though, she comes to understand that what she gives is not returned, that her parents only demand attention and obeisance; at last she breaks away from the perpetual novena, hard though it is for her to do so, and begins to shape a life that can truly be her own.
These moments of revelation and decision are not always so clear or dramatic. In "The Beginning," a black woman looks back on her childhood, living with a mother who adored her, who told her that her father was a prince, "a Hindu from Calcutta, a salesman of Worthington pumps," and that she herself was "the Indian princess in her palanquin, the treasure of the mahal above Leconte's Drugstore." Eventually she learns that none of this is true, but also that this knowledge is beside the point: "And so I passed my childhood disguised to myself as a princess. I thrived, grew strong and resilient. When the kingdom at last fell and the castle was conquered, and I lost my crown and my birthright, when I stood naked and revealed as a young black female of illegitimate birth, it hardly mattered. By then the castle and the kingdom were within me and I carried them away."
Several of the women are widows, missing their husbands in different ways and seeking new satisfactions in their new lives. One, rejecting the pleas of her embarrassed children, takes employment as housekeeper for an eccentric old man; when he dies, she develops an enriched understanding of the fate that awaits her as well. Another, also recently widowed, reluctantly but determinedly makes the rounds at her country club on the first day of its summer season; in her grief and loneliness she drinks too much gin, but she is also "truly glad to have had this day, one of my dwindling supply, to have had the sun and the bitter sea taste in my mouth." Still another, a young woman who survived an airplane crash in which her husband and children were killed, is obsessed with a belief that her survival was an error and that she must rejoin her family; she flies constantly now, waiting for the plane that will crash and bring about this reunion.
IN ALL of these stories there is an awareness that fate is capricious. "Funny thing," Mary Margaret McIntyre thinks, "luck and the difference between living and dying." Even as these women seek to master their lives, they know that they cannot: "These things, they were all of them beyond her reach. Forces changing her life, and beyond her control. Impersonal, like wind and rain. Unquestioned." There is in their lives a "thing that crouched waiting in the shadows," a fate they have no choice but to accept, however shocking and painful it may prove to be.
Thus it is that Angela, a successful businesswoman, accedes, even if with apprehension and grief, to her lesbian lover's desire to have a child; Barbara, a prosperous middle- aged woman, permits the dissolution of her own marriage on the same day as her daughter's wedding; Katy, also prosperous and middle-aged, accepts her role as "wife of the ranking male member of a tribe" which observes annual rituals that are at once tired and life-giving. None of these women is conspiring in her own oppression or abuse; each is simply coming to terms with what fate has dealt her, and trying to make the best of it.
To describe these stories as I have may make them seem morose, even morbid, but quite the contrary is the case. Irony and self-deprecating wit are much in evidence, and so too is Grau's keen eye for the manners of middle-class life along the Louisiana coast. There are no flash and dazzle in these stories, and their tone is like Grau's prose: measured, reflective, uninsistent. But their quiet can be misleading; Grau is a serious writer, and her subject is always the essential business of life. It is fine to have her back after so long an absence.