THE ROSE GARDEN
By Maeve Brennan
320 pages; $23
Maeve Brennan is one of the best -- and most overlooked -- writers of the 20th century. Her collection of short stories, "The Rose Garden," published by Counterpoint, will make converts of new readers. The work features 20 stories, six of which have never been published before. Their locales are New York City, Dublin and environs. Economical, balanced, funny, savage, depressing, even doom-eager, these qualities signal the Brennan world-view.
Brennan was born in Dublin in 1916. She came to the United States at 18 and began as a copy writer at Harper's Bazaar. William Shawn, in the middle of his long tenure as editor of the New Yorker, made her a staff member of that magazine in 1948. For the next 25 years she contributed book reviews, memoirs, fashion notes and short stories. The latter were collected in two volumes: "In and Out of Never-Never Land" (1969) and "Christmas Eve" (1974). She died in 1993 after 10 years of mental illness. "The Springs of Affection," a selection of her stories about Dublin, was published posthumously in 1997.
There is nothing better than diving into the stories to get an immediate feel for her writing. The first story in the new collection, "The View from the Kitchen," gives the accurate, if poisonous, perspective of two maids, Bridie and Agnes, on the woman of the house, Mrs. George (Leona) Harkey. The locale for the story is Herbert's Retreat, fictionalized Snedens Landing, where Brennan and her second husband, managing editor of the New Yorker, St. Clair McKelway, lived.
. . . a snug community of forty or so houses that cluster together on the east bank of the Hudson thirty miles above New York City . . . One characteristic all the houses have in common: They all eye the river. This does not mean they all face the river. Some of them face vaguely toward the highway, as though they were not sure exactly where it was. Some face each other, while keeping their distance, and a few seem to stand sideways to everything. But in every house the residents have contrived and plotted and schemed and paid to bring the river as intimately as possible into their lives. Occupants of the smaller houses have been very ingenious in devising ways to trap and hold their own particular glimpse of the water.
Bridie and Agnes look on and snicker at the machinations of Leona Harkey, who couldn't wait for the body of her first husband, Mr. Finch -- mangled in an auto accident -- to grow cold before marrying her second meal ticket, pitiful George Harkey, a credit manager. Harkey's aunt has bequeathed him her small cottage, which unfortunately blocks Leona's river perspective. Leona wants her view of the river and will do anything to get it. She requires George to tear down the cottage and with it, what he has left of his manhood.
Moreover, Leona loves high society and the mind of the elegant, sleek, greyhound of a man, art critic Charles (God) Runyon, who is a frequent visitor. Bridie observes:
He has his own room here, even. He told her the way he wanted it, and she had it all done up for him. He hasn't even got his own car, but they fall over themselves around here to see which one of them will give him a lift out from the city. They think it's an honor, having him around. He's supposed to be very witty. A wit, he is. He never opens that narrow little mouth of his but they all collapse laughing.
Another work, "The Beginning of a Long Story," is equally beguiling. I like the start of it, perhaps because it reminds me of my own mother's warnings about not taking care in the rain.
There was nothing but rain, day after day. Everything got very damp, and every funeral marked the last chapter in a story that always began with somebody getting his feet wet.
Bring an umbrella if you must. But read this book.