Monday, July 27, 2009

Of Cats And Men by Nina de Gramont

If one were to go by titles, then this set of stories by Nina de Gramont, Of Cats and Men, should be stories about, well, cats and men. Insofar as they have to do with cats at all, they are stories about cats and women. And yes, a cat does occur in each story, sometimes even in a pivotal role, but the stories are really about women and the men they choose, or choose to leave, and about the ways in which mothering metamorphoses women’s lives.  As for cats and men, I’m tempted to say that the men in her stories are as blind to cats (and their real natures) as they are to the women in their lives, but in truth she often paints sympathetic portraits of both men and women. I suspect the Steinbeck allusion was simply irresistible.

What immediately captured me about these sketches was the emotional honesty of the voice in each story. Sometimes it is the voice of a woman who married for love but has to come to the realization that she misses the comforts of her moneyed upbringing. Ashamed to admit to her hard working blue collar husband that she wants more, that she wants out, that she feels stifled and moldy in their ranch-style rental.

Most of the women characters find themselves either trapped in relationships that they shouldn’t be in, or stifled by the confinements of motherhood, but de Gramont  usually allows her women to escape. One of her characters survives a near fatal accident (while in her lover’s car), and afterwards shocks her stupefied sister as well as her dutiful husband by simply leaving her home and children behind, calmly explaining to her sister that the children will be better off with their father. Perhaps it is the trauma to the brain that has rearranged the priorities in her life, perhaps simply the near-death experience, but what is clear is that she can now run away, and she does.

Another of the mothers is unable to leave her large family, or at least to leave the house in which they all live, but finds another way to retreat into herself.
At first Simone minds terribly, that their mother has locked herself away in the attic. In the late afternoon before their father gets home, after the summer chaos has cooled with the sun, she can hear rustling upstairs, scraping, and sometimes footsteps. Lonely noises, and eerie: making their way through the far reaches of the kitchen, the butler’s pantry, the den. Even after they quiet, Simone thinks she can hear their mother breathe, intermittent but endless sighs, like the audible exhalation of this old, ever-settling house. 
Her sister Maggie is nearly ten, more than a year older than Simone. They are the only two who care that their mother has for all purposes left. The others, the older ones, barely seem to notice.
Mothers who run away from home, mothers who hide away in their own homes, anything for a space of their own, a life they can manage. While there is humor in many of the stories, there is also a somber earnestness. The decisions these women have to make in order to keep or rediscover their sanity are wrenching.  One young mother, afraid to confess to anyone how suffocated she feels by motherhood finds herself mentally making up ads like ones she has seen in the paper offering pets their owners can no longer keep.
Treasured infant needs new home. Caroline is five weeks old, healthy and beautiful, only cries when she’s hungry. Has been breast-fed but will take a bottle without complaint. We must give Caroline up, because her mother is overwhelmed by the scope and enormity of parenthood.
It is no wonder that couples so often find themselves mismatched in a culture that parades and advertises the cult of love—falling in love, living on love, dying for love, but never mentioning how difficult it can be to simply to live with another person.
I’ve never been the sort of woman who fantasizes about Marlboro Men. I don’t have a weakness for the strong, silent type who works with his hands and gets more  emotional over sunsets and Jim Beam than the woman in his life. I like civilized  people, who use correct grammar and have at least a vague understanding of silverware placement. People who understand the imperative of a college education and well-written thank-you notes. 
Needles to say, I fell in love with Charlie before he became a cattle rancher.
My suspicion is that the author of these stories, the voice behind the various characters, grew up in an economically privileged home, and there is an indelible  snobbishness  regarding both money and education in many of the stories.  Still, there is some real attempt to dissect the snobbery and to poke fun at it, and the writing is fast-paced and darkly humorous. It is a quick and pleasant summer read.

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