POLITE SOCIETY by Melanie Sumner


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 A former Peace Corps veteran debuts with a series of short stories set in Senegal (all but one about the same character) that neatly skewer cultural misapprehensions, though not much else. The unrelated tale, ``Edge of the Sky,'' slyly sends up official America abroad as it limns the comedy of errors that ensues when a frumpy, unhappy American ambassador's wife accompanies her African maid to a local soothsayer. Told that ``someone in your house will be unfaithful,'' the wife naturally suspects her boorish spouse, but she has some infidelities of her own in mind. The seven linked stories record the decline and fall of bad-girl Darren, an unlikely Peace Corps recruit. Darren seems naughty in the innocent manner of an Evelyn Waugh protagonist: ``When I was twenty-five, I ran away from home. My parents cheered me on. By that time I had lost a series of demeaning jobs and let my boyfriend get away. More than once I told my mother she didn't love me, just to watch her cry.'' The Peace Corp takes her on because she has, ``such a nice face'' and resembles ``everybody's sister, everybody's best friend from high school.'' Once in Senegal, Darren is soon in trouble again. She is hopelessly incompetent at her assigned task of teaching English; she has an affair with her language instructor and must fly to Washington, DC, for an abortion; another love affair is equally disappointing; she gets involved in a riot; and by the end she has taken to drinking too much to fight the void within. This soul-sick, suddenly gloomy Darren somehow doesn't gibe with the sassy girl of the beginning. Much lively writing and a vividly evoked African milieu distinguish this debut, but Darren ultimately disappoints, becoming merely a conduit for action and aperáus. (Some of these stories have previously appeared in The New Yorker and other magazines.)

Pub Date: April 17th, 1995
ISBN: 0-395-68998-8
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 1995


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