Mavis Gallant Short Story: A Review

One Story Magazine recently listed their top ten favorite short stories, along with an additional twenty-six stories to flush out the “long list.” Mavis Gallant's When We Were Nearly Young made the long list. Having read 28 of the stories out of the 36, I’m unclear on how this story made this list. As soon as I started reading When We Were Nearly Young, I remembered having listened to it on the New Yorker Fiction podcast a year ago. I recalled thinking how I had not cared for the story then, but I pulled out my ipod and listened while reading the short story from The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant. Unfortunately, the story did not grow on me.

What I really enjoyed though was the discussion between writer Antonya Nelson and New Yorker Fiction Editor Deborah Treisman. They discussed how Gallant was influenced by Checkhov and Hemingway, and about the state of the short story today, and how some students find them “depressing and inconclusive.”

Gallant’s story, When We Were Young, doesn’t have much of a plot. It’s a first person account of a young woman trying to discover herself while living in Spain during the Franco era. She is waiting for money to arrive from the United States. She has three Spanish friends, two men and one women, who also seem to be in a state of waiting. The story starts:

In Madrid, nine years ago, we lived on the thought of money.

They live simple lives, eating in the cheapest of restaurants and loafing around, trying to enjoy what they can with their meager funds. It’s as if their lives are in a state of suspension. In the end, the narrator receives her long awaited check and this changes her relationship with her friends, for they are waiting in a different sense. They have no chance of real money or opportunity coming to them.

They understood that my new fortune had cast me out.

After the reading of the story on the podcast, Treisman tells an interesting account about how Gallant did live in Spain waiting for her agent to sell a story and send her money. Unfortunately, her agent had been cheating her; he had been selling her stories but he had not been sending the money. Nelson also tells how Gallant had once sent in a story to the New Yorker and William Maxwell had turned it down, but thirty years later he admitted he was wrong and said he believed it was a good story.

Have you read this Mavis Gallant story? If so, did you like it and why? For those who haven’t read it but want to check it out, I recommend listening to the audio reading here on the New Yorker website.