I first encountered Gina Berriault’s magnificent “Women in Their Beds” two decades ago when I was on the National Book Critics Circle board, and we gave the book our fiction prize. Throughout her career — she died in 1999 at 73 and published four novels as well as two earlier collections — Berriault was well regarded by juries and critics (“Women in Their Beds” also received a PEN/Faulkner and a Rea Award for the Short Story), but overlooked by a substantial readership. As to why this is, I can only conjecture that she was too … authentic is the word that seems appropriate, for in her writing, Berriault is never anything other than herself.
First published in 1996, “Women in Their Beds” gathers 35 pieces of short fiction, including 10 that had not, at the time, appeared in book form. That’s a moot distinction now, with the collection out of print so long that in 2011 Berriault’s longtime partner, novelist Leonard Gardner, put together a collection called “Stolen Pleasures,” which included 20 of the stories here.
“Stolen Pleasures” is a terrific book, but “Women in Their Beds” — which has finally been reissued in paperback, with a deftly offhanded introduction by Peter Orner — is better, if only because it brings together more work. It may seem like overstatement to call the book a masterpiece, but that’s what it is: An array of narratives that work individually and in conjunction with one another to offer a portrait of the artist as an original, astute in her observations and nuanced in her language and construction, writing according to no rules but her own.
This is clear from the beginning, the title story, in which a young actress works in the women’s ward at a San Francisco hospital, picturing her ancient charges not as they are but as they once were: girls. That she can’t do it is the point, for Berriault is uninterested in easy sentimentality. She has something more irreconcilable in mind. She makes that explicit late in the story, when she writes to us, her readers, over the head of her character: “Listen, my dear alones,” she implores us, “over there across the city. Do you remember how each time you lay yourself down in a bed you wondered, if even for a moment, what you were doing there? And what about the beds you thought you’d chosen for yourself? Do they seem now chosen for you?” The implication is that we are all like the women here, imagining that we have agency when we are at the mercy of circumstance. Such an idea recurs throughout the collection, for in Berriault’s universe there is no epiphany or rescue, only muddling in the here and now.
Take “A Dream of Fair Women,” in which a restauranteur named Singh (“None of the patrons … suspected that he was born on a dirt farm in the San Joaquin Valley and had never set foot in India”) drops dead unexpectedly in his place of business. “Terrible, terrible,” says a waiter. “I think he was only 40.” Or “The Overcoat,” which takes its inspiration from Gogol and traces a visit by a junkie named Eli to the parents he abandoned 16 years before.
“[N]ovels in miniature” is how Berriault’s friend Jane Vandenburgh once described the author’s stories, but if that’s a fair assessment, it also doesn’t say enough. Not one piece here, after all, is as long as 20 pages, and many come in at fewer than 10. And yet they carry a weight, a resonance, a depth and sense of loss. I think of “Around the Dear Ruin,” in which a woman dies of a botched abortion, leaving her husband to deal with the aftermath, all the while wondering why she didn’t want his child.
What Berriault is after is to work the tightrope of the particular, writing stories that take place between the lines. Her characters are wives and daughters, mothers and lovers, souls not lost but struggling, in California north and south. That this is nothing we haven’t experienced is the whole idea. For Berriault, the most essential narratives are those that reflect the complexities of living, in which there is hope, yes, although it does not necessarily lead anywhere. “I had to leave,” a character in “Stolen Pleasures” imagines saying to her sister, “I had to find my own life, but it was never and may not ever be the life you thought I was enjoying.” Berriault makes the story less an instrument of action than of suspension, in which we are caught between what we have and what we will never have, between our obligations and our desires.
California Short Story Writers
“A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories” by Lucia Berlin (2015): Like Berriault, Berlin was overlooked during her lifetime, but this generous selection of her writing focuses on themes of family and work and the daily struggle to make a life.
“Lost in Uttar Pradesh: New and Selected Stories” by Evan S. Connell (2008): Best known for his novels “Mr. Bridge” and “Mrs. Bridge” and his biography of George Armstrong Custer, Connell spent decades living in San Francisco and traces a range of lives there, from bohemia to the middle class.
“Tell Me A Riddle” by Tillie Olsen (1961): One of America’s great practitioners of the short story, Olsen spent much of her life in the Bay Area. She didn’t publish much, but what she did produce are brilliant, acute stories about motherhood and family and the obligations of work and love.
- By Gina Berriault
- With a New Introduction by Peter Orner
- 416 pages, Counterpoint, $16.95