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New Yorker Fiction Reviews: Colm Toibin's "Summer of '38"

Each week I review the short fiction from the latest issue of The New Yorker. However, since the issue comes out on Monday, and I get it any time between Wednesday and Saturday, sometimes the reviews are a bit late...

Colm Toibin's "Summer of '38" is a not-very-compelling short story, set partly during the Spanish Civil War in a small town outside Madrid, and partly in the modern day (-ish) era, in that same small town. Essentially, an old woman is forced to confront the memory of a love affair she had during the Civil War, with one of General Franco's soldiers; an affair that produced a child, and which caused her to have to marry a different man in order to cover up her out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Late in the story, her old flame sort of attempts to return to the town and almost runs into their illegitimate daughter, however the old woman averts the encounter.

Okay, I've already made known my attitude toward this story. But let me explain why:

a.) It's a pretty tired story line. The soldier and the innocent young girl from town have a summer love affair. The soldier goes off to fight, or whatever, the girl is left to deal with the little baby. it's proven that there are only really 21 or so fiction plots in all of the history of "story." Everything is recycled, after all, and there is nothing new under the sun. But, this seems a pretty egregious case of that. Soldiers and young women are horny, sometimes they have sex and the soldier has to go away, leaving behind a little bit more than a fond memory. Okay, so what? In this nothing.

b.) There is no conflict. There is the suggestion--the merest of hints--that the old woman may be forced into a situation where she has to introduce her daughter to her real father and all that drama, but 1.) it never happens, and 2.) we're not even sure how the old woman feels about that or whether or not she cares at all if it ever happens. There is no conflict. No mystery. Therefore, no story.

c.) The main character is about as interesting as pencil drawing of a stick figure on the back of a matchbook, and just as multi-dimensional. Maybe Toibin just doesn't have much of a hand with female characters, but this one ends up being little more than a cipher; a paper cut-out of a young woman with not much going on in her head or her heart. Maybe the Civil war deadened her on the inside? Maybe she's meant to not have much character? Okay....then WHY THE F*CK AM I READING ABOUT HER? Maybe, more like it, Toibin didn't really have a vision for the character, but was trying to tell a highly-nuanced, subtle tale about secrets and perseverance through dark times. The Civil War and the Franco Regime still make Spaniards--especially those who lived through that era--a little raw; a lot of people still don't like to talk about Franco for fear his regime still has eyes and ears. Well, without knowing that from other sources, you'd never really have picked that up from this story.

It's one thing to use deft writing and give a story a subtle undertone that is not readily apparent to the eye, and it's another to be so deft and subtle that the point never comes across at all. This story undoubtedly fell into the latter category.


Anonymous said…
Hi Grant - I'm always glad to see another TNY Fiction blogger. I just discovered you in connection with "Kattekoppen" (which I loved, but I'm so stunned from all the stuff that's in there, I haven't formulated a post yet).

I didn't quite "get" this one in the same way so many others seemed to. It's fine, and the scene with the photographs is lovely, but it's not going to be on my favorites list.

I look forward to comparing notes in the future.

Karen Carlson

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