The four novellas of this reissued 1967 book center on young women in the 1940s and '50s seeking to find themselves in a world looking to impose its own definitions.
The enigmatic Honor Lawrence of the title story, age 15 but claiming 18, takes a job in a New York office but dislikes business and seems impossibly naïve until her father’s cruel behavior is revealed. She goes on “long inexplicable wanderings” and reappears in ever worsening condition to the man who hired her and whose wife speaks of how marriage can make a woman feel “like an imbecile in a little room, with no money and no freedom.” In “The Dianas,” Lydia is a vibrant American in the last days of a Paris vacation successfully fending off would-be dates and suitors. She escapes unscathed only to accept something seemingly fine that could be malign. Australian writer Stead, as she did painfully in The Man Who Loved Children (1940), lets a fairy-tale feel last only so long before shifting acutely. Bumptious, loutish men overshadow the two crucial females in “The Rightangled Creek.” One is a wife who does endless chores for her self-important writer husband and their coddled Princeton-bound boy. The other is a 22-year-old, “full of life,” who gets a disease from her guitar-playing do-nothing husband, loses a child and then her mind. “Girl from the Beach” returns to Paris, where Linda of New York has quit the Sorbonne and is surviving on occasional checks from her parents. She enchants a self-involved freelance writer and becomes embroiled in an exquisite comeuppance engineered by his latest ex-wife. Linda seems to bottle up her free spirit and return to an acceptable marriage in the U.S., but the fiance could harbor a threat.
At shorter length, Stead reveals more clearly her gifts in tone and voice and building a scene, while her theme here puts these fictions among the Ur-texts of feminism.