Sunday, April 14, 2013

Short Take: "The Vandercook," Alice Mattison

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Alice Mattison’s fine short story “The Vandercook” portrays an unequal marriage. The relationship is dominated by the wife, who is so committed to her personal prerogatives that her husband might as well not exist. The story begins with them relocating from California to the husband’s boyhood home of New Haven, Connecticut. The husband’s father is retiring from running the family-owned print shop, and the wife, looking for a career change, offers to take it over. The husband doesn’t mind relocating--he’s a schoolteacher who is quickly able to find work after the move--and he’s nostalgic for the opportunity to put his (limited) print-shop skills to use. But after they arrive, the husband is so caught up in his own preoccupations that he cannot see his wife’s willfulness is turning the business, particularly his family’s long-term relationship with it, on its head. A key scene comes early on. In bed one night, the wife tells the husband she would be able to kill him. It’s a joke in the context of the moment, but it proves a darker joke in the context of the greater story. While the wife does no literal harm to the husband in the story’s finale, she figuratively murders a bond he had with his childhood. She kills a part of their relationship's bond along with it. Mattison gives this fracturing of the marriage an almost tragic force, and her command of nuance is such that she has no need for histrionics. The story is remarkably understated. The couple’s inability to look each other in the eyes is far more eloquent than any shouting. Mattison also has an impeccable command of structure. Every scene, detail, and trope prepares one for the ending. Looking back on the story, one can see from the start the seeds of the marriage’s downfall in the couple’s personalities. The tale's resonance is in knowing that, for the pair, there is likely no going back.

“The Vandercook,” by Alice Mattison, was originally published in the Spring 2011 issue of Ecotone (cover above). It is also featured in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2012, edited by Laura Furman.

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