Fairy tales and realistic studies happily coexist in this elegant collection.


Eight stories about a variety of women from French playwright/novelist Schmitt (Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran & Oscar and the Lady in Pink, 2004, etc.).

Several start with intriguing puzzles. Who is the old woman repeatedly breaking into Odile’s Paris apartment? (The answer in “The Intruder” sheds an imaginative light on sickness.) What is the secret at the heart of Isabelle’s apparently successful marriage, and why should it begin to unravel at her hairdresser’s (“Every Reason to be Happy”)? The title story’s question is in a class of its own. The setting is a Soviet-era women’s re-education camp in Siberia. The new arrival, Olga, has a wild tangle of hair: Why is that so important? All the women long to communicate with their faraway daughters, and it’s deeply moving that the most ordinary among them hits on the perfect solution, revealed only in an epilogue. Schmitt’s tales echo Maupassant’s with their lean narratives, surprise endings, mordant humor and psychological acuity. That humor and acuity sparkle in “A Fine Rainy Day.” Hélène is a perfectionist and a malcontent; Antoine sees only the good. Their marriage is counterintuitive, yet it works. The eponymous “Odette Toulemonde,” a humble Belgian shop assistant, is the devoted fan of a potboiler novelist with big problems. Odette shows him the way out, moderating a meeting with the novelist, his publisher and his difficult wife. Even the slighter stories have their charms. A touring actor returns to the Sicilian village where, years before, a beautiful young woman invited him to a fabulous restaurant and then to her bed (“The Barefoot Princess”). A discarded mistress picks the wrong target for her revenge in “The Forgery,” which features a Picasso, while an old beach bum’s really bad paintings fetch big bucks in “Wanda Winnipeg”; the world’s wealthiest woman is repaying, finally, her first lover.

Fairy tales and realistic studies happily coexist in this elegant collection.

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 2009

ISBN: 978-1-933372-74-7

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Europa Editions

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2009

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It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

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What's most worthy in this hefty, three-part volume of still more Hemingway is that it contains (in its first section) all the stories that appeared together in the 1938 (and now out of print) The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories. After this, however, the pieces themselves and the grounds for their inclusion become more shaky. The second section includes stories that have been previously published but that haven't appeared in collections—including two segments (from 1934 and 1936) that later found their way into To Have and Have Not (1937) and the "story-within-a-story" that appeared in the recent The garden of Eden. Part three—frequently of more interest for Flemingway-voyeurs than for its self-evident merits—consists of previously unpublished work, including a lengthy outtake ("The Strange Country") from Islands in the Stream (1970), and two poor-to-middling Michigan stories (actually pieces, again, from an unfinished novel). Moments of interest, but luckiest are those who still have their copies of The First Forty-Nine.

Pub Date: Dec. 2, 1987

ISBN: 0684843323

Page Count: 666

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 1987

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