Mrs. Somebody Somebody, I’d like to introduce you to Olive Kitteridge.
There are some similarities between both of these books, which are both collections of linked stories set in New England, but make no mistake – they are different from each other. The town of Lowell, Massachusetts is more of the pivotal, central character rather than one person (although several make appearances in several stories). Still, I’m willing to bet that if you enjoyed Olive Kitteridge (as I most definitely did), you will also like Mrs. Somebody Somebody, which is a stunning debut by author Tracy Winn and which also captivated me.
I started this on Friday evening and had this finished by Sunday afternoon. I honestly did not want this to end. It’s a fast read, but an engrossing one. These ten stories are all set in the industrial mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts, beginning in the 1940s. The first (and title) story is about a group of female workers that includes Stella (who we will meet again in subsequent stories) and her friend Lucy, who hails from the Deep South and has some progressive ideas about unions.
It also begins with one of the best first lines I’ve ever read:
“Lucy Mattsen was nobody – like all the women I worked with – until the day the baby fell out the window.” (from the first and title story, “Mrs. Somebody Somebody.”)
There’s so much to this particular story, which focuses on the differences between those concerned about workers’ rights and those who are most interested in getting married, i.e., becoming “Mrs. Somebody Somebody.” (If you’ve read this, are you – like me – wondering how this early experience and exposure to unions shaped Stella by the end of the book, given her career?)
The stories continue with a soldier’s return from the Korean War (“Blue Tango”) back to a domestic life that only resembles that which he left behind and contains shards of deception (“Glass Box,” one of the best short stories I’ve ever read and one with a delicious Flannery O’Connor feel). It continues with his children’s lives (“Frankie Floats”) as we follow the characters – who are connected with the town’s mills – through the modern day.
One of Tracy Winn’s many strengths as a writer is the ability to give her reader memorable characters who we instantly recognize and come to know in just a matter of a paragraph. She’s also gifted at portraying the emotional tension between them in only a few carefully-selected words.
“Wetherbee lounged with the newspaper in the wing chair by the fireplace. Though he wasn’t tall, his solid shape dwarfed the chair. His thick hand made the aunties’ teacup look like a dolly’s. (He drank coffee all day, Delia remembered, sometimes two mugs going at once, one in the garden shed, one balanced on the sundial in the dahlia bed.) As Frankin careened past him, his shorts sagging with the weight of his diaper, Wetherbee peered over the top of the newspaper: God the Father looking down through the clouds.” (“Glass Box”)
and this, a page later:
“He turned to Delia. ‘If I remember right, Mrs. Burroughs, you have some slim black gloves that reach about yea high, but this glove wasn’t as fetching as those.’
The aunts seemed to have stopped breathing – perhaps rapt by the thought of Wetherbee reaching into a cow.
‘Then my uncle hands me a chain, says he was only kidding about the glove; he’ll take care of that part if I’ll pull when he tells me.’
Gwen laughed her bottle laugh with such relief that she sounded like she might just overflow.
Bess grimaced at Delia. ‘Isn’t he awful?’
Delia took a black olive into her mouth and held it in her cheek. It gave her something to do with her face.
‘So I took ahold of that chain, and he wrapped the other end around the calf’s feet.’ His meaty hands wrapped a chain around the air in front him like a conjurer. ‘You see, it was a breech birth; he was coming out ornery fashion, which Mrs. Burroughs knows all about. So I pulled with all my might.’ He patted his solid middle. ‘I wasn’t full grown then. But that calf just popped out and slithered into a heap on the hay.’
Gwen said, ‘So everything turned out all right,’ and smoothed her plaid skirt. They’d taken their aprons off at the last possible minute.
Bess said, ‘I didn’t know Franklin was a breech baby.’
‘He wasn’t.’ Delia handed Franklin a spoon, which he banged on the tray of the old high chair. ‘I’m not sure just what Mr. Wetherbee meant.’ She lifted her fork to her mouth. ‘This turnip is delicious.’
Bess said, ‘Rutabaga, dear.'”
Zing! Literary perfection, right there.
copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo’s Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.