What I hope to do is, by the use of intricate detail, to make this woman so believable you can’t help but feel for her.
—Lucia Berlin, “Point of View”
In “Point of View,” Lucia Berlin’s most complexly imagined short story, a female writer confides in us, her readers, her intentions in writing a story, which will turn out to be not quite the story she intends to tell us, or, indeed, the story we finally absorb, with a belated pang of emotion at the final line. We are told by Berlin’s fictitious writer that she prefers to emulate “Chekhov’s impartial voice” in order to imbue her (fictional) character with a modicum of dignity; if the character, a “single woman in her late fifties,” were to tell her own story, complete with “all the compulsive, obsessive boring little details of [Henrietta’s] life,” we would be likely to “feel embarrassed, uncomfortable, even bored.”
However, Berlin’s writer assures us, “my story opens with ‘Every Saturday, after the laundromat and the grocery store, she bought the Sunday Chronicle’”—that is, the writer has strategically altered the point of view so that the story appears to be in the third person and not the first. Not the self’s self-pity but a writerly impartiality is the ruse that will draw us into the story of a “dreary creature” for whom otherwise, she thinks, we would feel little sympathy.
Is this writer proud of being so clever, or is such cleverness, so advertised, an oblique form of despair, even rage at the diminished circumstances of her life? Whoever she is, she tells us, somewhat boastfully:
Most writers use props and scenery from their own lives. For example, my Henrietta eats her meager little dinner every night on a blue place mat, using exquisite heavy Italian stainless cutlery. An odd detail, inconsistent, it may seem, with this woman who cuts out coupons for Brawny towels, but it engages the reader’s curiosity. At least I hope it will.
Not surprisingly the writer goes on to tell us that she too eats with such “elegant cutlery”—and also that she once worked for the nephrologist with whom her character Henrietta is hopelessly in love; but the writer herself “certainly wasn’t in love with him.”
Planning her story, the writer recalls working for Dr. B., though she is careful to distinguish between herself and Henrietta, a figure of pathos. We are privy to the writer’s self-doubt: “I’m having a hard time writing about Sunday. Getting the long hollow feeling of Sundays. No mail and faraway lawn mowers, the hopelessness.”
Following (fictitious) Henrietta through her small life, we are moved to pity her: “no matter how nasty [Dr. B] is to her Henrietta believes there is a bond between them.” The nephrologist has a clubfoot,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.