The Barnes & Noble Review
Read this collection of short stories from the Pulitzer Prizewinning author of Empire Falls backward. That's the only way to avoid comparing each of the other six strong stories to the masterful title piece. Inventively constructed, emotionally honest, and with a climactic punch that is both inevitable and surprising, "The Whore's Child" (the story) is as close to a perfect short story as you'll find anywhere.
To be sure, The Whore's Child (the collection) contains many other pleasures and poignant pains. "The Mysteries of Linwood Hart" is a knowing portrait of a ten-year-old whose coming-of-age is triggered not by a sexual awakening but by an understanding that he is not the center of the universe. "The Farther You Go" offers a compelling portrait of a man who finds himself surprisingly sympathetic to the son-in-law who struck his daughter. If the plot of "Joy Ride," in which a woman takes her young child on a cross-country odyssey to escape a troubled marriage, sounds familiar, rest assured that Russo's observations and conclusions are not. Even when he treads a little too closely to John Cheever territory (it's difficult to read Russo's "Buoyancy" without thinking of Cheever's "The Swimmer"), his sharp characters and spare imagery carry you through. With all those riches, though, it's "The Whore's Child" -- about a writing teacher's encounter with a nun devoid of the ability to fictionalize -- that haunts, demanding a reread as soon as the rest of the collection is complete.
This is the first collection of stories from the novelist who hit the ball out of the park with Empire Falls after building a strong and steady following for his earlier novels, including Nobody's Fool and Straight Man. As with all of his novels, The Whore's Child is a satisfying, accessible, and moving must-read. (Lou Harry)
On the heels of his recent Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, Empire Falls, Russo, noted for his depiction of declining small-town life in the Northeast, offers up his first collection of short fiction. In these seven stories, the author alternates between tales of children caught in the turmoil of their parents' fighting and tales of middle-aged writers and artists making discoveries about themselves and their pasts. In nearly every story, a male serves as the narrator or central protagonist, and readers observe how his world is shaped and altered by mothers, absent fathers and wives both dead and living. In "Monhegan Light," for example, a Hollywood moviemaker traveling in New England with his young girlfriend meets the painter who, for twenty years, carried on a secret romance with the moviemaker's now-deceased spouse. This collection provides a wealth of delights and rewards from an author who's surely hitting full stride.
Russo's sterling reputation is largely due to his astounding ability to present the tangled emotions of troubled parent-child and marital relationships with comic verve, bracing clarity and dramatic tension fused with an undercurrent of pathos. These predicaments are well represented in the seven stories of his first collection, whose protagonists betray themselves and others in different social milieus. The brassy, flaky mother in "Joy Ride," who leaves her stodgy husband in Camden, Maine, and drives across the continent with her 12-year-old son in search of "freedom," may have much in common with the overbearing, intellectually pretentious mother in "The Mysteries of Linwood Hart," in which her 10-year-old son tries to fathom the implicit but inexplicable rules of adult behavior, but one woman is forced to admit defeat in the marital game, and the other is triumphant. In another case of parallel identities, the emotionally constricted college professor in "The Farther You Go" and the professor emeritus in "Buoyancy" must both acknowledge betrayal of their wives, not through deeds but as a result of their cold self-absorption. Ironically, the misogynistic Hollywood photographer in "Monhegan Light" learns a bitter lesson in Martha's Vineyard when he discovers his dead wife's decency in protecting him from knowledge of her longtime affair. The most memorable character here, however, is the title story's Sister Ursula, the daughter of a prostitute whose lifelong search for her absent father ends with a heartbreaking epiphany. Russo's rueful understanding of the twisted skein of human relationships is as sharp as ever, and the dialogue throughout is barbed, pointed and wryly humorous. The collection is a winner. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Russo won the Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls, and his skills are equally on display in this collection of stories. Russo is a master of characterization, especially evidenced in two tales concerning boys worrying about their place in the world, and two others focusing on old people whose hold on their lives is slipping. But things do happen in this selection of works, a welcome change from the ethereal effects aimed at by many short story writers. The author reads his own work, and while his narration is engaging, he is no professional. Several times his voice drops at the end of sentences, swallowing what sounds like some of his best lines. These versions of Whore's Child are identical, but libraries will prefer the more expensive Sound Library recording for its stronger packaging and tape replacement policy.-John Hiett, Iowa City P.L. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Readers who loved such a roomy, generously plotted, and detailed novel the Pulitzer-winning Empire Falls won't be able to resist this first collection of seven stories by the Maine novelist. Most of the stories are closely akin to Russo's longer fiction, especially "The Farther You Go," which shows a slightly harsher side of hangdog college prof Hank Devereaux, the engaging protagonist of Straight Man-from which it is perhaps a discarded chapter? Crises peculiar to middle age and bereavement are compassionately explored in tales about a widowed filmmaker's tardy realization of what his late wife had meant to him ("Monhegan Light"); and a retired academic biographer's disturbingly personal discovery that it is "foolish and arrogant to think you could imagine the truth of another human life" ("Buoyancy"). Russo is at his best in the beautifully developed title story, in which a nun's accidental grasp of the truth about her childhood functions as epiphany also for her divorced creative-writing teacher. And he's unrivaled by any writer since the early Salinger at striking to the heart of childhood-becoming-adolescence: in the novella-length history of an introspective ten-year-old ("The Mysteries of Linwood Hart") slowly, painstakingly maturing out of his suspicion that the world revolves around him; and in the superb "Joy Ride." The latter records the experiences and observations of a preadolescent embryonic delinquent whose impulsive mother snatches him away from deeper trouble, their Maine hometown, and her eccentric underachiever of a husband, for a brief, perilous vacation from domesticity and responsibility. It's a wonderful distillation of Russo's gifts for crystal-clear narration, subtle character portrayal, and irrepressible humor, and is capped by a tonally perfect bittersweet conclusion. There may be more important writers around, but none is more likable, or more dependably entertaining and rewarding, than Russo.
From the Publisher
“An author whose laid-back understatements can be as sharp as other writers’ boldest declarations….the architect of stories you can’t put down.” The New York Times
“[Russo] has joined those writers who can be said to have coined their own universe…. [He] achieves an emotional balance through his humor and generosity of spirit.” Chicago Sun-Times
“The most expansive of contemporary writers.” The New York Times Book Review
“Straightforward and engaging from the first page… Mr. Russo makes writing short stories seem effortless.” Wall Street Journal
“These beautifully crafted stories, made more appealing by their rueful humor, are the work of a writer at the top of his game.” –New York Post
“Russo is a master of the small moment as nuclear explosion, the life-changing turn of the screw. His writing is unornate, but as authoritative (and cool) as marble. . . .The Whore’s Child is . . . powerful and moving.” –Atlanta Journal Constitution
“The vigorous comic voice that has always been Russo’s is a great leavening force here. . . . These stories are something to be grateful for.” –Newsday
“The Whore’s Child pulsate[s] with real life.” –The New Leader
“[Russo] stands alone as the Stendhal of blue-collar America.” –Esquire
“Russo again proves himself the master of real-life angst with the comic twist. His characters are sometimes funny, often sad, but never pathetic.” –Orlando Sentinel
“The Whore’s Child should solidify his reputation….All seven stories are lovely examples of Russo’s wit and compassion.” –Newark Sunday Star-Ledger
Read an Excerpt
The Whore's ChildCopyright 2002 by Richard Russo
Sister Ursula belonged to an all but extinct order of Belgian nuns who conducted what little spiritual business remained to them in a decrepit old house purchased by the diocese seemingly because it was unlikely to outlast them. Since it was on Forest Avenue, a block from our house, I'd seen Sister Ursula many times before the night she turned up in class, but we never had spoken. She drove a rusted-out station wagon that was always crowded with elderly nuns who needed assistance getting in and out. Though St. Francis Church was only a few blocks away, that was too far to walk for any of them except Sister Ursula, her gait awkward but relentless. "You should go over there and introduce yourself someday," Gail, my wife, suggested more than once. "Those old women have been left all alone." Her suspicion was later confirmed by Sister Ursula herself. "They are waiting for us to die," she confessed. "Impatient of how we clutch to our miserable existences."
"I'm sure you don't mean that," I said, an observation that was to become my mantra with her, and she, in turn, seemed to enjoy hearing me say it.
She appeared in class that first night and settled herself at the very center of the seminar despite the fact that her name did not appear on my computer printout. Fiction writing classes are popular and invariably oversubscribed at most universities, and never more so than when the writer teaching it has recently published a book, as I had done the past spring. Publishing the kind of book that's displayed in strip-mall bookstores bestows a celebrity on academic writers and separates them from their scholarcolleagues, whose books resemble the sort of dubious specialty items found only in boutiques and health food stores. I'd gotten quite a lot of press on my recent book, my first in over a decade, and my fleeting celebrity might have explained Sister Ursula's presence in my classroom the first chilly evening of the fall semester, though she gave no indication of this, or that she recognized me as her neighbor.
No, Sister Ursula seemed innocent not only of me but also of all department and university protocol. When informed that students petition to take the advanced fiction writing class by means of a manuscript submission the previous term, and that its prerequisites were beginning and intermediate courses, Sister Ursula disputed neither the existence nor the wisdom of these procedures. Nor did she gather her things and leave, which left me in an odd position. Normally it's my policy not to allow unregistered students to remain in class, because doing so encourages their mistaken belief that they can wheedle, cajole or flatter their way in. In the past I'd shown even football players the door without the slightest courtesy or ceremony, but this was a different challenge entirely. Sister Ursula herself was nearly as big as a linebacker, yet more persuasive than this was her body language, which suggested that once settled, she was not used to moving. And since she was clearly settled, I let her stay.
After class, however, I did explain why it would be highly unprofessional of me to allow her to remain in the advanced fiction workshop. After all, she freely admitted she'd never attempted to write a story before, which, I explained, put her at an extreme disadvantage. My mistake was in not leaving the matter there. Instead I went on. "This is a storytelling class, Sister. We're all liars here. The whole purpose of our enterprise is to become skilled in making things up, of substituting our own truth for the truth. In this class we actually prefer a well-told lie," I concluded, certain that this would dissuade her.
She patted my hand, as you might the hand of a child. "Never you mind," she then assured me, adjusting her wimple for the journey home. "My whole life has been a lie."
"I'm sure you don't mean that," I told her.
In the convent, Sister Ursula's first submission began, I was known as the whore's child.
Nice opening, I wrote in the margin, as if to imply that her choice had been a purely artistic one. It wasn't, of course. She was simply starting with what was for her the beginning of her torment. She was writing–and would continue to write–a memoir. By mid-semester I would give up asking her to invent things.
The first installment weighed in at a robust twenty-five pages, which detailed the suffering of a young girl taken to live in a Belgian convent school where the treatment of the children was determined by the social and financial status of the parents who had abandoned them there. As a charity case and the daughter of a prostitute, young Sister Ursula (for there could be no doubt that she was the first-person narrator) found herself at the very bottom of the ecclesiastical food chain. What little wealth she possessed–some pens and paper her father had purchased for her the day before they left the city, along with a pretty new dress–was taken from her, and she was informed that henceforth she would have no use for such pitiful possessions. Her needs–food, a uniform and a single pair of shoes–would be provided for her, though she would doubtless prove unworthy to receive them. The shoes she was given were two sizes too small, an accident, Sister Ursula imagined, until she asked if she might exchange them for the shoes of a younger girl that were two sizes too large, only to be scorned for her impertinence. So before long she developed the tortured gait of a cripple, which was much imitated by the other children, who immediately perceived in her a suitable object for their cruelest derision.
The mockery of her classmates was something Sister Ursula quickly accommodated, by shunning their companionship. In time she grew accustomed to being referred to as "the whore's child," and she hoped that the children would eventually tire of calling her this if she could manage to conceal how deeply it wounded her. During periods of recreation in the convent courtyard she perfected the art of becoming invisible, avoiding all games and contests when, she knew, even those on her own team would turn on her. What she was not prepared for was the cruelty she suffered at the hands of the nuns, who seemed to derive nearly as much satisfaction from tormenting her as their charges–beginning with her request to exchange shoes. She had not merely been told that this was not permitted, but was given a horrible explanation as to why this was so. The chafing of the too small shoes had caused her heels to bleed into her coarse white socks and then into the shoes themselves. Only a wicked child, Sister Veronique explained, would foul the shoes she'd been given with her blood, then beg to exchange them for the shoes of an innocent child. Did she think it fair, the old nun wondered out loud, that another child, one who had not only a virtuous mother but also a father, be asked to wear the polluted shoes of a whore's child?
Worse than the sting of the old nun's suggestion that anything Sister Ursula touched immediately became contaminated was the inference that trailed in the wake of her other remark. The innocent girl had not only a virtuous mother–Sister Ursula knew what this meant–but also a father, which seemed to imply that she herself didn't have one. Of course she knew that she did have a father, a tall, handsome father who had promised to rescue her from this place as soon as he could find work. Indeed, it was her father who had brought her to the convent, who had assured Mother Superior that she was a good girl and not at all wicked. How then had Sister Veronique concluded that she had no father? The young girl tried to reason it through but became confused. She knew from experience that evil, by its very nature, counted for more in the world than good. And she understood that her mother's being a prostitute made her "the whore's child," that her mother's wickedness diminished her father's value, but did it negate his very existence? How could such a thing be? She dared not ask, and so the old nun's remark burrowed even deeper, intensifying a misery that already bordered on despair.
Sister Ursula's first installment ended here, and her fellow students approached the discussion of it as one would an alien spacecraft. Several had attended Catholic schools where they'd been tutored by nuns, and they weren't sure, despite my encouragement, that they were allowed to be critical of this one. The material itself was foreign to them; they'd never encountered anything like it in the workshop. On the plus side, Sister Ursula's story had a character in it, and the character was placed in a dire situation, and those were good things for stories to do. On the other hand, the old nun's idiom was imperfect, her style stiff and old-fashioned, and the story seemed to be moving forward without exactly getting anywhere. It reminded them of stories they'd heard other elderly people tell, tales that even the tellers eventually managed to forget the point of, narratives that would gradually peter out with the weak insistence that all these events really did happen. "It's a victim story," one student recognized. "The character is being acted on by outside forces, but she has no choices, which means there can be no consequences to anything she does. If she doesn't participate in her own destiny, where's the story?"
Not having taken the beginning and intermediate courses, Sister Ursula was much enlightened by these unanticipated critiques, and she took feverish notes on everything that was said. "I liked it, though," added the student who'd identified it as a victim story. "It's different." By which he seemed to mean that Sister Ursula herself was different.
The old nun stopped by my office the day after, and it was clear she was still mulling the workshop over. "To be so much . . . a victim," she said, searching for the right words, "it is not good?"
"No," I smiled. Not in stories, not in life, I was about to add, until I remembered that Sister Ursula still wasn't making this distinction, and my doing so would probably confuse her further. "But maybe in the next installment?" I suggested.
She looked at me hopefully.