Lynn Freed’s collection of short stories The Curse of the Appropriate Man reads as though one is sitting in a room with many women and each one is offering her confession, a deep secret, which is meant only for you, the reader. Only you will understand and not judge. Only you can be trusted. As such, it reads with great honesty and there is nothing I enjoy more in writing than honesty.
The most striking of the stories for me is “The Widow’s Daughter”. A tale of a beautiful girl whose mother refuses to pay a dowry for her daughter. The awful, lecherous father dead, the two women are left to make their way. It seems the mother always used the daughter as her object (as did the father):
Ever since Irma had been a girl, her mother had sent her out among men with trays and drinks, or to play the piano, or to sing. Irma shone and burned among men, she left them burning and shivering themselves. It was as if mother and daughter had it arranged between them, people said, cause and effect.
In continuing to do so even after the death of her husband, the mother marginalizes her daughter, sees her not as a human being but as an object. As such, she starts to look at her daughter through the eyes of a man:
During supper, Flora Gershin did not take her eyes off Irma. The girl moved like a dancer from the sideboard to the table. When she ate, she lifted her eyes to the stranger. She asked softly whether he wanted more soup. More fish? She was an actress, this girl, she was a dancing girl and a whore, and Flora Gershin wanted to get up from the table and take her in her arms herself.
In the end the two women are left alone as they were in the beginning. Their future is uncertain, though Irma, believes the writing is on the wall—that she will escape:
She saw Albert Kessel, and she saw herself, as if already she were living the other girl’s life.
Freed could keep good company with Grace Paley, as far as consistency and clarity of voice are concerned. She maybe lacks some of Paley’s empathy but makes up for it in smart, dry wit. As with Paley, Freed’s stories are masterful in their simplicity. There is nothing superfluous.
The Curse of the Appropriate Man is a smooth and elegant collection of stories, pulling together many cultures, many times, many places, yet leaving the reader feeling as though she has heard one consistent song–that of a woman looking for her place in the world.