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no, no, not that Mrs. Darcy

Thanks to Algonquin books for the review copy.

Thanks to Algonquin books for the review copy.

I don’t read as many short stories as I used to. When I opened up Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger, I raced through the first one and then the second that first night, and then I had to force myself to take my time. One story a night, I promised myself. And so I took in a story at a time, each one different but also familiar.

Each story in Mrs. Darcy is set in the American south, but the main characters are both male and female, young and old and in-between. Some of the stories feel more like vignettes and others are more fully plotted, with crises and resolutions. Each details a moment or two in which the main character slips from a familiar world into a new one. Whether trepidation, optimism, or despair comes along with that sea change is different for each protagonist.

In “House Tour,” Lynn is at home alone looking forward to a glass of wine from a box when a gaggle of Red Hat Society members gently bully themselves into her house, mistakingly believing it’s part of a civic tour of homes. Lynn, a Yankee whose marriage has a few nicks in its veneer, is swept away by her impromptu guests, who peek into her rooms and force her into conversation and ghost stories. In the middle of their visit, Lynn’s husband, the supercilious playwright Lawrence, comes home.

“Ladies…” Lawrence begins, then pauses. “Ladies, pardon me. But could you explain your attire to me, please? Are you members of a club? An organization?”

“Not really,” Rita says.

“We’re a disorganization,” Georgia explains. “The only rule is that you have to be over fifty. And basically we’re all tired of doing things for other people. We just want to have some fun. We’re releasing our inner child,” she adds.

Lawrence laughs, a short, abrupt bark.

Oh no, Lynn is thinking. Now he will destroy them.

“Intensive Care” is the story of Harold, a successful man who has left his wife, money, and children to take up with the woman who was once his teenage crush, Cherry Oxendine.

Lois ought to know. She’s been right there during the past six weeks while Cherry Oxendine has been in Intensive Care, writing down Cherry’s blood pressure every hour on the hour, changing bags on the IV, checking the stomach tube, moving the bed up and down to prevent bedsores, monitoring the respirator—and calling Rodney Broadbent, the respiratory therapist, more and more frequently. “Her blood gases is not by twenty-eight,” Lois said in the Beauty Nook. “If we was to unhook that respirator, she’d die in a day.”

“I would go and do it then, if I was Harold,” said Mrs. Hooker, the Presbyterian minister’s wife, who was getting a permanent. “It is the Christian thing.”

“You wouldn’t either,” Lois said, “because she still knows him. That’s the awful part. She still knows him. In fact she peps right up ever time he comes in, like they are going on a date or something. It’s the saddest thing. And ever time we open the doors, here comes Harold, regular as clockwork. Eight o’clock, one o’clock, six o’clock, eight o’clock, why shoot, he’d stay in there all day and all night if we’d let him. Well, she opens her mouth and says Hi honey, you can tell what she’s saying even if she can’t make a sound.”

There are so many more I want to tell you about. There’s “Tongues of Fire,” about a young girl who begins going to a Charismatic church with a friend’s family and develops a fascination with the practice of speaking in tongues. In “Fried Chicken,” a woman whose favorite son is in prison for murder tries to find meaning in her life by preparing his favorite meal. Jeffrey, the young boy at the center of “Toastmaster,” is out to dinner with family when he overhears a group of boisterous diners practicing joke after joke, and though he’s always felt invisible, he’s overcome with the desire to be seen. The title story is the last one in the book and a fitting capstone, featuring the eponymous Mrs. Darcy, who ruffles her grown children’s plans to install her in a nursing home during a summer by the beach. In all of the stories, Smith gives us characters we can understand, even the ones who hurt the ones they love. After all, that’s something that almost all of us have done and will do again.

I missed this book when it came out in hardcover last year, but I’m so glad I got the chance to read it now. Lee Smith’s talent is one that I think of as quintessentially Southern, and not just because that’s where all the stories in the collection are set. Her writing is genteel, handling each of her characters with compassion and a bless-your-heart and the zest of true wit and humor. There’s something more to it than her voice, though. Reading Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger is like going to a wonderful dinner party at a well-kept home. Everything sparkles; everything shows the polish of maintenance and care. The company is just the right blend for lively conversation. The food is exquisite, a feast for the eyes and the nose as well as the palate. And at the end of the night, when your hostess hands your coat back and you take your leave, she accepts your thanks gracefully while never giving the slightest hint of how much work it took to pull off the evening.

Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger (paperback, May 2011)

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