Yet Lynn, the sharp-tongued protagonist of “House Tour,” finds herself reluctantly admiring the elderly Southern ladies who invade her home (decidedly not on the tour). “We’ve been doing things for other people our whole lives, and now it’s time for us to enjoy ourselves,” they declare, giggling. “We are releasing our inner child!” Lynn, whose inner child has been worn down by years of socializing “with other overeducated supercilious people,” resolves to buy herself a dog and some sexy high heels. She’s not so young herself, “but improvement is possible.”
After all, as the narrator of “The Happy Memories Club” informs us, “I may be old, but I’m not dead.” She’s not a proper Southern lady either, even though she taught English for 30 years in Virginia; her unvarnished memories of a poverty-stricken youth and an out-of-wedlock baby horrify more circumspect members of the Writing Group in her retirement community. The widowed title character of “Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger” likewise disconcerts people, in her case by casting off her spectator heels and stockings to shuffle around in flip-flops and describe a mystical vision to her startled family.
The book closes with “Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger”; intriguingly, it’s one of Smith’s earliest stories. The author employs no obvious organizing method in this volume; she scatters previously collected work among newer pieces in a progression that traces no clear trajectory from childhood to old age. However, an epigraph by Eudora Welty—another master of short fiction—suggests an underlying principle: “The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time, but in their significance to ourselves they find their own order, a timetable not necessarily—perhaps not possibly—chronological. The time as we know it subjectively is often the chronology that stories and novels follow: it is the continuous thread of revelation.”
With this in mind, we can see that although Smith’s marvelous sense of humor never deserts her, the mood darkens and the endings become more ambiguous as the collection progresses. Hard-won optimism prevails at first; anxiety, anger, and bitter ironies then creep in; and finally life’s essential mystery overwhelms us. Smith’s wisdom and technique, already impressive when she was a young writer, have deepened over time, but her vision has never really changed: “All this pain and loving, mystery and loss,” muses the narrator of “Between the Lines.” “And it just goes on and on.”
Wendy Smith is a contributing editor of The American Scholar. In 2010 she was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.