Jean Stafford’s stories have a wide social and geographical range; they are linked together by two strong threads—the presiding sensibility is always a woman’s and the attitudes are unmistakably American—but, beyond that, one has no idea what to expect. She writes about people whom loneliness has driven slightly mad, but also about people who are secure and comforted; she explores childhood and old age, poverty and wealth, tragedy and comedy. The comedy is usually wry, sometimes sour, but often moves one to laughter. Above all, Miss Stafford will not be hurried. Confronted with a scene or a situation, she moves forward deliberately, possessing it with her eyes and her mind, taking in all its details, the meanings it offers, and the meanings it holds back. Here she is in the women’s ward in the poorhouse:
Beyond this hearty band and beyond the laughing matron, Lily could see into the large ward, where every bed—and there were four long rows of them—was occupied by an ancient woman; the humps of their withered bodies under the seersucker coverlets looked truncated and deformed like amputated limbs or mounds of broken bones, and the wintry faces that stared from the stingy pillows had lost particularity: among them it would have been impossible to determine which was primarily bleak or mean or brave or imbecile, for age and humiliation had blurred the predominant humor and had all but erased the countenance. A few of the women had visitors and the tops of their commodes were littered with purses and hats and gloves; those who were alone glared greedily at their luckier neighbors and, like crones in a comic strip, cupped their ears to eavesdrop. A constant, female babble came from the room, and though they were immobile, the bedridden seemed to bustle and flit; they gave the impression of housewives hurriedly setting things to rights as they saw unexpected callers coming up the drive; the impression came solely from their voices, in which there was neither resonance nor modulation; they chirped like crickets, dry and shrill.
This amplitude occasionally—very occasionally—works against the short story form, which thrives on brevity and suggestion; Miss Stafford’s inclination is to analyze, to explore fully, whereas the story is, ideally, a feathered arrow that goes the shortest way to its target. But if some of the pieces read like panels from a novel which was never assembled, that only adds to the strength of the collection as a whole, for by grouping the stories according to the region of their setting, Miss Stafford permits us, if we wish, to read the book as if it were four short, episodic novels, in which we move from house to house, from family to family, rather as in the early chapters of Dr. Zhivago. (I don’t mean that there is any other resemblance.) To me, this book is the most solidly achieved of the three I deal with here, and I have …