If I knew him now as he was then, what would I think of him? I can imagine watching him.…His judgment – not of abstractions like immigration and taxes but knowing how to hold himself, when to be still – is unexpectedly delicate and true.; I can see it now, from this distance.
This story is the third in a series of six stories (as of now; see the author interview) about Stella, a British child growing up in the 1960s. The first, “Honor“, in which Stella was about eight years old, was published in The New Yorker last January.
Stella is now about fifteen but narrates from a distance of time and upon considerable reflection. The story is very effective at conveying her emotional reality as she adjusts to a series of major changes in her life. I do have an issue with elements being artlessly dropped from the story after they’ve served some temporary purpose. Also, the events in the story don’t really lead to one another, they’re just chronologically linked and have been chosen because they illustrate the given theme. And I have the same problem I had with her earlier story, “Honor”, in that due to the “looking back” voice, it just doesn’t seem like a complete story but a scene in a longer work (which, in a sense, it is, though it’s written as a complete story, albeit one in a series). I felt Stella the narrator was incomplete, because I didn’t know what had happened to her in the intervening years that might have altered her perception of these events. Did she find happiness as an adult? Or was she scarred by these events? But there’s an emotional core here, and it feels very true.
Stella’s mother has just married Nor. We don’t know what happened to her father, but he’s been gone since she was a baby and she doesn’t remember him. The new family moves into a brand-new house complete with stickers still on the windows and fresh-cut tree stumps marking rectangles that will be gardens. As it happens, I moved into a similar brand-new house, albeit in Florida, when I was about ten, so I understand the starkness of a new development. It’s clean and new but it’s also empty and barren. And a new family might feel the same way. This was very effective.
Stella has a doll, presumably a Barbie-type doll, at the beginning of the story. There’s a truly wonderful paragraph about the doll:
My belief in my dolls, at that point, was in a delicate balance. I knew that they were inert plastic and could be tumbled without consequences upside down and half naked in the toy box. At the same time, I seemed to feel the complex sensibility of each one, like an extra skin stretched taut and responsive, both in my mind and quite outside of me.
The doll disappears completely from the story. Stella meets Madeleine, her new neighbor, and they become friends of convenience. They begin a cult of the beech trees which were cut down so the development could be built. Madeleine, as Stella sees her, is an interesting character: “Her oblivion seemed so extreme that it had to be disingenuous…. You never got to the bottom of what she actually knew or didn’t know.” Madeleine fades from the story as well, though not as suddenly or as completely as the doll.
The doll, and Madeleine, reinforce the real trope of the piece: duality. Things that are one way and another at the same time. Things that might be or might not be at the same time. A new house much bigger than the old apartment but that seems crowded because stepfather Nor is there. A stepfather who is not a father but is trying his best to be. A stepfather who, in spite of his occasional impatience is about as good and decent and caring as any father could be, is still regarded with suspicion. A mother who, in becoming pregnant, displays an interest in babies that Stella never knew existed. And trees which are there even though they have been cut down.
The final incident – indeed, the only real incident of the rather thin plot – is quite wonderful in a quiet way. Mum is in the hospital for the last weeks of her pregnancy. Stella is trying to figure out a math problem, and Nor tries to help. She realizes he just might be able to help, since he is an account keeper and works with numbers all day. Of course, accounting and physics are very different things, and the problem eludes him. He insists the teacher must have explained how to solve the problem. Then somehow Stella’s coffee gets spilled. “Spilled milk was one of the things Nor and Mum dreaded above all else; if you failed to eradicate every trace, the smell as it soured came back to haunt you.” And Stella, as she’s saving her homework book from the mess, has a brainstorm and comprehends the previously incomprehensible equations involving distance, velocity, and acceleration. It doesn’t sound like much, but it works in the story. Stella explains it to us: “….he hated his failure to know more than I did, be cleverer than I was.” And she begins to understand the duality that has been underlying the entire piece.