Had it not been for incredible writers like Grace Paley, Alice Munro, Elizabeth Strout, and Carol Shields, I may still have shunned short fiction, and thereby missed out on reading Jean Thomson. Like the above writers, Thompson writes about us, ordinary people neither rich nor famous. But unlike Munro and Strout, Thompson’s characters are mostly city folk very much caught up in the now of frenzied city-life, economic insecurity, bleak predictions, abandoned hopes.
Almost all the stories are in a very intimate first person, inside the mind and body of the narrator immediately. I could easily review the book simply by giving first lines of stories. Each announcing a character and set of circumstances all of us readers recognize, sometimes with a sigh or in-taking of breath, sometimes with the nod of the head. “Jack Pardee signed his enlistment papers in May, right after graduation. The Army recruiter had been working on him for most of a year.” Her story “Lost” begins:
Always her characters are ordinary folk, but her skill at description is anything but ordinary, her never heavy-handed political asides always on the mark. Thompson understands at a deep level the despair that grips more and more people and at younger and younger ages. In her story “Pie of the Month,” one of only a few where there is an author behind the scene commenting on the characters, Mrs. Colley is a woman who has been widowed for many years, and has grown into her solitary life. As the title of the story suggests, she bakes pies, tries to understand the world that keeps changing around her, avoids listening to news: “It was all so worrisome, and all so completely beyond your control.” Mostly the news was about wars, and about things blowing up “in a place you’d never been, or sometimes never even heard of, you first thought what a terrible thing it was, followed by relief that it had nothing to do with you, really, followed by a vague guilt at feeling relieved.” The final lines of the story sum up the views of Mrs. Colley:
I was twenty years old and about as pretty as I was ever going to be, although I didn’t know that yet. I had long long hair, all the girls did. Mine was nearly down to my waist. It swung across my back like a bell. I had nice legs. There was always some boy I was crazy for, always trouble with some boy. There was never any useful purpose to it. I could never figure out what to do with them, besides wanting them to distraction.
While this set of stories makes it obvious that we are a global village, and that corporations are bigger than countries, “…it isn’t really countries that fight Wars now. It’s corporations,” Thompson is at her very best when she is describing the inner lives of women relating to other women, and trying, trying, trying to understand their relationships with men. In the title story, “Throw like a Girl,” the narrator, Gail, has just heard about the cancer death of her girlfriend from youth—her first love in all the most important senses of that word. “Janey was the wild child, the one who couldn’t wait to do too much of absolutely everything. It wasn’t appetite or depravity, just the fear that she might be missing out on something.”
You wanted so badly to believe that life was basically good, that people were basically good. And Mrs. Colley did believe it. She might not go around announcing that she was wonderful and blessed, but she reminded herself often that there were many terrible places she could have been born into but had not. Nothing abnormally bad had ever happened to her personally or was likely to happen except for, eventually, dying, oh well. But nowadays there was so little you could trust to stay good, as if there was a pinhole at the bottom of the world and all the best things were leaking out of it.
At one point in the story Janey, who has been newly initiated to sex, asks Gail if sex is supposed to hurt. And after a few stumbling attempts to get at what is behind the question, Janey blurts out, “I think he was trying to make it hurt.”
Thompsen understands relationships, understands the inebriation of new loves, understands the peculiar flatness that often infects old ones. Her story “The Woman Taken in Adultry,” begins,
That made me queasy, I guess it shocked me. We didn’t like thinking of ourselves as vulnerable, breakable, controllable objects, even if that was exactly the way some people saw us. I said that it wasn’t right, what he’d done, and she said, Yeah, she knew. But she was still mulling it over, keeping something back. “What?” I said.
“I let him think I kind of liked it.”
I didn’t want to hear that either. Because I understood why girls did such things, even a bold, harum-scarum girl like Janey, understood why we went along with so much, were anxious to please, laughed when nothing was funny, kept silent when we should have spoken, bent ourselves into obliging shapes, did the things that shamed us, even as Janey was ashamed. There was some desperate and unlovable creature that lived inside us, and we had to keep it fed.
As I went back over these stories tagging pages with lines or paragraphs I wanted to share, I soon had dozens of book-marks inserted. I even thought of simply naming the book and author and then stringing together quotes, quite sure that would be a sufficient lure for serious readers. In any case, talking about her as a writer will never be anything like as scintillating as reading her. I leave you with the opening lines of “The Brat.”
I had two daughters and a husband who didn’t notice things. I was lonesome. Sex isn’t always about sex.
My husband was no trouble. Never had been. I’d grown used to stepping over and around him the way you might a large dog sound asleep in the doorway. You start out being married together and you end up being married apart. I’m convinced that’s the truth for most people, if they were honest about it.
She hated her mother and she hated her father to, at least when he was around to be hated. She hated school and all the snotty girls who put their heads together giggling and talking big and showing off their nail polish and their new shoes and new cell phones and whatever else they bought bought bought.