"The Whore's Child" and "Monhegan Light" by Richard Russo

by sbh on Monday - 31 December 2007

in Reviews

Generally speaking, I am a Richard Russo fan. For Christmas Natalie gave me The Whore’s Child and Other Stories, a collection of short stories by Mr. Russo. Thus far, I’ve only read two, and I’ve found myself both delighted and disappointed at the same time.

My biggest disappointment came with “The Whore’s Child.” While Russo creates a memorable, interesting character in Sister Ursula, ultimately, I was disappointed by the somewhat flat first-person writing professor, and the framing device and method of storytelling employed.

Specifically, I wondered what Russo had to gain by setting the story in the present. While Sister Ursula goes through some changes in the present, no other character is significantly interesting. Russo’s framing device (Sister Ursula enrolls in a fiction writing workshop, but is not writing fiction at all) sets the action in the past; we really see the story through her eyes, not the narrator’s. For much of these flashbacks, Russo (a.k.a. Sister Ursula) falls into a “telling” mode. While the reader is left to wonder about where the story will come out (and I think it ends well), it feels a bit tedious getting there, in spite of its short length, because we are just being told tidbits and details. There’s not a lot of “show.”

“Monhegan Light,” on the other hand, is more engaging. Like “The Whore’s Child” we are confronted with some interesting characters (though some, such as Joyce, are a bit stock) in interesting situations. Unlike “The Whore’s Child” we can really feel the immediacy of the story—Russo has occasion to write.

Martin, a Hollywood director of photography, decides to make a visit to the island community of Monhegan in order to visit an acquaintenance of his now dead wife. It is sweet, yet tragic. Martin neglected his wife while she was alive, but he has fallen in love with her again after seeing her through another man’s eyes. Consequently, he seems disinterested even in the sexy, young Beth that he has been seeing. Interesting situations abound. I liked it.

Here’s what I wasn’t fond of—the end. The end feels like Russo ran out of steam, got tired. He tells us in blunt words the point of the story:

And he thought too about Beth, the poor girl. She had it exactly backwards. This trip wasn’t so much about saying goodbye to his wife as saying hello. He’d fallen in love with her, truly in love, the moment he’d uncrated the painting back in L.A. and seen his wife through another man’s eyes.

This passage just feels like a sledgehammer. Perhaps Russo was worried that we didn’t “get it.” I would have preferred something a little more subtle—it might have fit with the rest of the story a little better.

“Monhegan Light” is to be recommended for its interesting transitions alone. Russo employs sharp cuts, eases in and out of flashbacks (sometimes very effectively), and sweeps across both time and space with minimal effort. From a technical perspective, I found this to be a good study.

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