OUR KIND, A NOVEL IN STORIES, BY KATE WALBERT.
NEW YORK: SCRIBNER'S, 2004. 195 PAGES.
In "Sick Chicks," the sixth of the ten mordant, moving stories that make up Our Kind, Kate Walbert's dead-on novel about women at the end of their lives, there's a book-group meeting in a hospice, in the Sunshine Room. Some of the members are "guests" for life in the "state-of-the-art facility"; the others are visiting Judy. "Bring a different perspective." Judy says: "Can you imagine if it were just us sick chicks?" Judy might be making that nice distinction with irony: irony is the mode of choice tor these women, required by their circumstances. Our Kind is narrated in the present time, in the first-person-plural voice of ten women (including Judy) who "were married in 1953. Divorced in 1976. Most of us excel at racquet sports." Detritus of the 1950s, they are washed up together in old age in their rich Connecticut suburb, "in the same boat," ruefully rifling their memories to identify the beginning of their end. ("The Beginning of the End" is the title of the unforgettable final story). To "us," the still enterprising and finally dry-drunk Canoe and her buddies, Judy's fellow hospice residents are immediately familiar, "like all the women we had ever known, their faces slipping past in the silverplated coffee urn, in the sugar bowl, the salad fork, the butter long." Elegant outmoded accoutrements of the well-born, prosperous, propertied class: nice things like the women themselves, if cold and hard and (some of them) pointed ones, "not used to unpleasantness."
Viv, who is running the book group, is among the nonresidents; Mrs. Dalloway is the assignment of the month. Viv sets up the discussion by explaining it is about "us," that is, "women of a certain age" ("we" Americans don't of course mention class; and Clarissa, who invites the prune minister to her party, is of course English). Too brightly, Viv asks the teacher's standard question, "Did she peg us? How many of you identified with Clarissa?" Total silence. Then, "I've always been fond of the name Clarissa," Barbara says. "You don't hear it anymore." You know just where Barbara's coming from, and so does everyone else, poor deflated Viv included: wittily or stupidly, these women cling desperately to words. ("Intervention," half-crazy Esther says, when she's asked to make one in the hrst story [called "Intervention"], "is not a word of which I am particularly tond." In another story, Barbara remembers that when her ex-husband called to tell her that their daughter Megan committed suicide in his garage, she had to stop herself from correcting him: not /IMHO but hanged.) So Viv battles the depression and distraction endemic to the Sunshine Room and her own regretful nostalgic memories of more focused attention to books, when she was a star student at Smith College; she soldiers on through the fine points of Mrs. Dalloway. But Betsy Croninger says the phrase "the hour irrevocable" makes her think of the word cancer, then plaintively observes that she would rather not die. Stalwart, formal Mrs. William Lowell continues to insist that Virginia WoolPs novel is "intentionally confusing": she prefers a good story, she says, and wants them all to read Pride and Prejudice next. The women agree. But Mrs. Lowell dies before the next meeting, and the group misses what, "given her own pedigree," she would have said about Darcy and Elizabeth and their social problems ("there was a First Lady in her background"). And as they think of her, Mrs. Lowell is suddenly vivid to them, or rather her former self is-"a spry Mrs. Lowell in pearls and mules, carrying the conversation as she no doubt once carried the conversation at dinner parties. I like a good story,' she would offer. A beginning, a middle, and an end.'"
You gather the beginnings and middles of these women's stories from painfully sharp shards: Gay Burt terrified in the closet on her wedding night, group excursions with daughters, a collective recollected pang for the sexy nameless real estate man who is "our common "past encounter. …