Winner of the National Book Award in 1996, this collection of short stories by Andrea Barrett revolves on a theme of scientific inquiry and a preoccupation with the natural world. Barrett’s writing is crisp and precise; her stories are developed with carefully chosen language and controlled emotion. Though far from cold, her writing does give the feeling of a remove from the characters, a scientific objectivity that perhaps is meant to let the reader’s own empathies and emotions provide the ambiance and to color in the sky. I am left to wonder, as I reflect back on this work, if her tone is the result of conscientious shunning of “feminine” emotionality or if my noting its lack is more a product of my own biases and stereotypical expectations.
The women throughout these expertly wrought stories seemingly absorb scientific knowledge through the proximity to and the “accidental” teachings of educated men rather than through formal education of their own. Though these women are placed in various geographies and across three centuries, all find their abilities, ambitions, and intellect challenged by society’s expectations. In the England of the 1700s, the reader meets Sarah Anne, a who:
“inherited her father’s brains but Christopher inherited everything else, including his father’s friends. Sarah Anne acts as hostess to these men, at Christopher’s bidding. In part she’s happy for their company, which represents her only intellectual companionship. In part she despises them for their lumbago and thinning hair, their greediness in the presence of good food, the stories they repeat about the scientific triumphs of their youth, and the fact that they refuse to take her seriously. …She’s forward when she ought to be retiring, [Christopher] has said, and disputatious when she should be agreeable. He’s spoken to her several times already: ‘You should wear your learning modestly,’ he lectures.”
True, these expectations and attitudes are a product of their time; but they are not bygone mores. It takes no soapbox to present the simple fact that while the conditions and opportunities of women (in America, at least) today are greatly improved, they are by no means equal to those of men. Women continue to be paid less than men; our ambitions and assertiveness is frequently judged differently than those of men; and the struggles of work-life balance are impossibly skewed against women. In one of Barrett’s stories set in modern day, two highly-educated sisters mull over this very issue – not as mothers, but as caregivers – in the face of their father’s impending death.
“How could we stay? We had our own lives. But it’s true that despite that we thought of staying, talked of staying. On our knees on the kitchen floor, scrubbing the accumulated dirt and dog saliva and ant tracks and juice from a surface that for months had seen only the briefest sweeping, we looked at each other and said, ‘Anyone could walk into this house and tell there are no women here.’ And this was a strange thought, for both of us – that much of what had gone wrong had to do with the absence, no only of women, but of women willing to do those things that have always been women’s work. Our father’s wife was a busy woman, successful in her own way and seldom home. We were busy ourselves, and gone. And so there was no cleanliness, no order, no smells of good food cooked with care and eaten with pleasure, no signs of the raising of children, no curtains ironed, no flowers tended and cut for the tables. No one to relish a clean yellow counter shining in the sun.”
Andrea Barrett has crafted a collection of stories that showcase great intellect, discipline, and quiet strength. Their reserve is, for me, one of their most notable and intriguing assets. Barrett’s writing gives the reader an artisanal framework upon which her own impressions and reactions are left to determine its ultimate, individualized impact.