annotation by Heather Luby
As a reader, I am drawn to stories that dissect the complicated codes of conduct that rule the middle class. The domestic dramas that so many of us live out in our daily lives, but that a skilled writer can shed new light and perspective on with a well crafted story. In this collection there are no cliffhangers, no mysteries to be solved, just subtle observations of ordinary people presented with unflinching clarity.
As a writer, I wanted to examine this collection to learn how Sue Miller manages to make these ordinary stories resonant with the reader. One thing that stuck out more than anything else was her effective way of ending each story. In The Art of Fiction, David Lodge says, “One might say the short story is essentially ‘end-oriented,’ inasmuch as one begins a short story in the expectation of soon reaching its conclusion” and Miller achieves when it comes to very effective endings. Mostly Miller ends her stories with an idea or image. Generally speaking, very open endings, instead of using a circular ending or summary ending.
In the story “Slides” Miller ends with a very powerful image; Georgia is burning the nude slides of herself, “smoke curled up black and chemical. It turned into delicate dark particles as it rose, and these descended slowly onto Georgia, like winter’s first tentative snow.” Miller chooses carefully the image she wanted to use to create a lasting impression with the reader and this one image encompasses the hurt and anger the slides carry with them throughout the story.
In the story “Appropriate Affect” Miller ends with an image, yes, but more than that. It ends with an idea—Grandma Frannie figures out what those around her really want from her. She discovers that her family cannot accept the changes in her. That to love her is to love who she has always been and despite the changes she feels on the inside since her stroke, she must continue as she as always been in order to maintain the love of her family. To maintain the almost mythical status they have assigned her as matriarch of the family. “Then she seemed to realize what they wanted from her. Unassisted and shaky, she stepped forward and smiled again. Slowly she bowed her head, as though to receive the homage due a long and difficult performance.”
In the story, “What Ernest Says,” again Miller produces a strong image. “In her seat, Barbara tried to hide the slow tears starting down her face.”
The endings in this collection do not serve the purpose of wrapping things up neatly. So much is left for the reader to contemplate. Instead, Miller has decided to leave the reader with a punch to the gut (even if it is a gentle punch!) by giving them something concrete. An image, or lingering thought, that plants in the reader a lasting attachment to the story.