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The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress

Author: Michelle Richmond
Genre: Mainstream
Reviewed by: Tripp Reade

01120501Again and again, characters in Michelle Richmond's collection, The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress, grapple with the important role narrative plays in their lives.  Nineteen linked stories, all told from the first person, gradually reveal the history of a family in Alabama, and what emerges is a group of people, four daughters in particular--Darlene, Celia, Gracie, and Baby--who constantly seek to understand each other and the world by telling stories.  Sometimes they revise their stories based on new information, sometimes they stubbornly cling to an old version even when it seems no longer adequate, and sometimes they refuse to believe the stories told by others.

This is exactly the business of fiction.  Jerome Bruner, in his Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, speculated that stories provide "a map of possible roles and of possible worlds in which action, thought, and self-definition are permissible (or desirable)," (66) and further that "our sensitivity to narrative provides the major link between our own sense of self and our sense of others in the social world around us" (69).  Not only does this describe Richmond's characters, it also sets out what these characters, these stories, do for the reader: by their richness and believability they expand the reader's world.

In "Intermittent Waves of Unusual Size and Force," Darlene, estranged for years from her family by her mother's inability to accept the fact of Darlene's lesbianism, meets her father for lunch and he tells her what happened when, for one summer, he left all of them and drove to San Francisco.  It's the sort of story family members find almost impossible to tell one another, yet for Darlene his life now takes on a wondrous new quality.  "In his stories he lives the life of a slightly different man, someone freer and more brazen.  In his stories he becomes the father he thinks his daughters would have wanted, a father who makes mistakes not so different from our own" (106).  Here is a double pleasure: the reader's life becomes enlarged in the same way as the character's, even as the character comments on that growth.

Stories clash in "Down the Shore Everything's All Right," when Gracie and her boyfriend of four years, Ivan, go for a drive to Asbury Park.  Gracie plans to break up with him because of his penchant for telling stories, particularly his favorite, about the time he met Bruce Springsteen.  Immediately after she breaks up with him Ivan tells her a never-before-heard version of the story, one where he and Springsteen actually hang out for an evening, and Springsteen's sister takes their photograph.  "One last desperate fiction to win me back," (13) is how Gracie characterizes it, assuming the story is false and proceeding from that assumption to  conclude that such "dishonesty is a suitable reason to end a relationship" (15).  Ivan can't produce the photograph, though.  She berates him for telling such blatant lies: "What's wrong with the life you have?  Why do you have to make things up?" (15).  Ivan doesn't blame her for not believing him, but defends himself, saying, "At some point you just have to tell the story, no matter what people think" (15).  Nine months after she moves out of their apartment, a final box of her belongings arrive via UPS.  Among them, the photograph.  Though it's obvious from her meticulous description that the photograph is real, Gracie refuses to revise her story of Ivan as the perpetual teller of tall tales--a case of dramatic irony where the reader has better knowledge of the situation than does the character--and instead searches the photo for signs of tampering: "I marvel at the intricacy of the lie, the precision of the ruse, the bold lengths to which Ivan has gone to keep his story intact" (19).

Gracie's story of Ivan now turns into a lie she tells herself, not wanting to believe she's made another bad decision.  By the final story in the collection she will recant and begin her search for Ivan, who was correct in his assessment of narrative's value.

Most of Richmond's stories contain such moments, by turns heartbreaking and beautiful.  My favorite occurs in "The Last Bad Thing" when Gracie has an epiphany about her mother:

Even as I try to persuade her, I know that my mother will never leave this place.  I am beginning to understand why.  She is not in love with the city itself, but with the house where her children grew up.  The children that she knew and are gone now, somehow inhabit these beloved rooms.  In some way they are, and they are not elsewhere.  She is the only one in the world who truly knows these children. (54)

The light bulb clicks on for both Gracie and the reader, and two worlds are rendered more coherent as a result.

Frank Smith, another philosopher, makes a nice companion for Bruner where literature, and approaches to literature, are concerned.  In To Think, he wrote, "But the story we are probably most interested in, all our life, is the story of the world in which we find ourselves."  Ivan is the collection's most obvious proponent of this lovely axiom, but each story found here, and each character, helps Richmond do fiction's best work.  She gives us a constructed world that illuminates the stardust one in which we live.


January 12, 2005 in Mainstream | Permalink


Many thanks to Tripp Reade for the thoughtful review of this book. A friend pointed me to the site--lovely!

Posted by: Michelle | Feb 6, 2005 7:02:43 PM

You're welcome, Michelle. Your collection was wonderful, so I had to spread the word.

Posted by: Tripp Reade | Apr 4, 2005 10:56:40 AM

Hi Susan,

I would be most appreciative if you would post your wonderful book review of McClellans' Bluff--found on:
to the following site on Mobipocket:

Thank you so much!

Mary E. Trimble

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