Liars in Love by Richard Yates

I’ve been on a bit of Richard Yates kick lately. First with A Good School (1978), his loosely autobiographical novel of life as a teenage boy at a single-sex boarding school, and now with Liars in Love (1981), his second collection of short stories. While Liars isn’t quite as strong as his earlier collection, the superb Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (1962), it’s still very much worth reading, especially if you’re a fan of this author’s work or short stories in general – Yates is widely acknowledged as a true master of the form.

Once again, Yates demonstrates a deep understanding of the frailties of human nature here. More specifically, he explores the frustrations and disappointments of day-to-day life, the feelings of worthlessness that can stem from small failures, and the lack of connection as promising relationships break down and individuals drift apart. Here we have failing marriages, disparate households, and children who seem detached and isolated from their parents. It’s vintage Yates territory, as intuitively observed as one might expect.

The collection comprises seven stories each ranging from around 30 to 60 pages in length. As with other collections I’ve reviewed, I’m not going to cover each story in turn. Instead, my aim is to pick out a few favourites to give a flavour of the volume as a whole.

The opening story, Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired, is narrated by a young boy living in Greenwich Village with his sister and mother who is trying her hand – quite poorly as it turns out – at producing sculptures. The mother is a classic Yates character; having separated from her husband some three years earlier, she is now a somewhat tragic and deluded woman whose best years are almost certainly behind her.

She was forty-one, an age when even romantics must admit that youth is gone, and she had nothing to show for the years but a studio crowded with green plaster statues that nobody would buy. She believed in the aristocracy, but there was no reason to suppose the aristocracy would ever believe in her. (p. 30)

This is a thoughtful story laced with moments of pathos and sadness, a strong start to the collection.

Children feature again in one of my favourites pieces, Trying Out for the Race. In this story, two mothers with kids agree to share a house together in Scarsdale as a means of combining their respective resources. However, in spite of the fact that the two women, Elizabeth Hogan Baker and Lucy Towers, have been friends for years, they turn out to be somewhat mismatched as living companions. Here’s a brief flavour of the myriad of tensions that ensue – Nancy is Elizabeth’s young daughter.

The Towers family shied away from Elizabeth most of the time, and so did Nancy; it was like having a stranger in the house. Coming heavily downstairs in her spike heels, standing at the front windows to stare out at the Post Road as if in deep thought, picking at whatever food was set before her and drinking a lot after dinner as she paged impatiently through many magazines. Elizabeth didn’t even seem to notice how uncomfortable she made everyone feel. (p. 84)

This is a story full of acute observations on the sheer awkwardness and frustrations of living in close quarters with people other than family – a situation familiar to most of us at some point in our lives.

Another of my favourite stories, A Natural Girl, touches on the strained relationship between a father and his much-loved daughter, a young woman named Susan. Yates is typically strong on openings, but this one in particular drew me in from the very first line. Here’s how it begins.

In the spring of her sophomore year, when she was twenty, Susan Andrews told her father very calmly that she didn’t love him anymore. She regretted it, or at least the tone of it, almost at once, but it was too late: he sat looking stunned for a few seconds and then began to cry, all hunched over to hide his face from her, trying with one unsteady hand to get a handkerchief out of his dark suit. He was one of the five or six most respected hematologists in the United States, and nothing like this had happened to him for a great many years. (p. 37)

While the father struggles to understand why his daughter feels this way, there is in fact no particular reason behind it. As Susan says at one point: “There’s no more why to not loving than there is to loving. I think most intelligent people understand that.”

This is another beautifully observed story which also explores the landscape of Susan’s marriage to her college lecturer, an older man named David Clark. Towards the end of the narrative, things come full circle in more ways than one as Susan makes a brief return visit to the family home before setting out on her life again. The opening and closing sections are particularly poignant.

Others stories focus on an American soldier who requests compassionate leave to visit his estranged mother and sister, both of whom now live in England; a divorced writer who has a fling with a strikingly attractive girl while working on a screenplay in LA; and a young copywriter/editor named Bill Grove, presumably a grown-up version of the protagonist in A Good School.

While much of the subject matter explored in this collection is rather melancholy, there are touches of real tenderness and compassion here. In some ways, Yates is at his best when capturing these moments as he brings a degree of sensitivity and nuance to such scenes. It can be difficult when a quote is presented out of context, but I hope you can see something of it in this passage from Trying Out for the Race.

And Nancy gave her a brief, shy smile before turning away again. Slowly, Elizabeth removed the driving glove from her right hand. She reached across her daughter’s lap, clasped the outer thigh and brought her sliding over, careful to keep her small knees clear of the shuddering gear shift. She held the child’s thighs pressed fast against her own for a long time; then, in a voice so soft it could scarcely be heard over the sound of the car, she said “Listen, it’ll be alright, sweetheart. It’ll be all right.” (p. 92)

In summary, Liars in Love is another very satisfying collection from Yates. There are even glimmers of hope and optimism in some of these stories, a sense of fresh starts, new beginnings or second chances for some of the characters, which is pleasing to see. In many ways, these stories feel all the better for it.

Liars in Love is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

21 thoughts on “Liars in Love by Richard Yates

  1. Max Cairnduff

    It sounds excellent, as one would expect. That opening with the father is a gutpunch too.

    But, I do have a bit of a short story backlog presently. Still, I actually own this so I will read it at some point and I’ll save your thoughts to revisit then.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Powerful stuff, isn’t it? The opening and closing sections of that story are particularly affecting as the father struggles to connect with his favourite daughter. While I liked these pieces, I preferred the stories in Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, so it’s probably worth starting there if you have it.

      Like you, I probably have too many short story collections waiting to be read – they seem to have been breeding on the shelves over the last year or so! I’m also trying to work my way through a lovely NYRB volume of Elizabeth Taylor’s short stories which includes a selection of pieces from each of her four previously published collections. It’s proving to be quite a treat, so I’m trying to space them out a little bit in between other things.

  2. MarinaSofia

    Now that I’ve read the biography of Yates, I have a very good idea who that sculptor mother character is… It seems he made far less up than I had previously thought, but nevertheless his observational skills are second to none.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I think I read somewhere that Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired was inspired by some of Yates’ own childhood experiences. As you say, it’s not hard to work out who the disillusioned sculptor mother might be…

  3. heavenali

    Lovely review and such good quotes too. I am sure I would enjoy this collection. I have still only read one Richard Yates book. I must remedy that soon.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you would like his short stories very much. In fact, Marina’s earlier comment on Yates’s observational skills made me think of Elizabeth Taylor. There’s an achingly sad story in his earlier collection, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, which reminded me a little of some of Taylor’s short fiction. I think it’s called The Best of Everything, a piece about a young woman who gets a glimpse of what married life may have in store for her once she ties the knot.

        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Taylor came to mind because I’ve been dipping in and out of her stories recently, particularly the pieces from The Blush. There’s a story about a pair of newlyweds on their honeymoon where the woman is readying herself for her first night of passion only to realise that her husband is more interested in drinking in the bar than anything else. I couldn’t help but think of Yates and The Best of Everything as I was reading it.

  4. 1streading

    This is the only Yates I haven’t read – like you I read quite a lot in quick succession (though pre-blog). I think the reason I don’t have it is I intended to buy the Collected Stories, which contains some which are not in either collection, and in the end didn’t get round to that either!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, yes. I think I’ve read everything in the Collected Stories now, including the extra pieces over and above Loneliness and Liars. It’s worth getting, especially seeing as your so close to being a Yates completist!

  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Very sensitive review Jacqui, as always. I think I might have mentioned before that I didn’t get on too well with Yates when I read him some years back, but I think I would probably approach him differently nowadays. One day, no doubt, I’ll find my way back to him – certainly the quotes are very appealing!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. I appreciate you dropping by to comment as I know you’ve struggled with Yates in the past. Maybe short stories would be an easier way in than a novel?

  6. Caroline

    Of course it sounds excellent, it’s Yates after all. The opening with the daughter not loving her father anymore is so painful. I need to finish Eleven Kinds of Loneliness first but Im sure I’ll get to this eventually.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’ll like the collection. The story with the father and daughter reminded me a little of certain aspects of The Easter Parade, especially in terms of tone.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, madame bibi. Yes, I certainly don’t find him as bleak as writers like Jean Rhys and Georges Simenon. Yates does seem to demonstrate a degree of compassion for some of his characters in spite of their noticeable flaws and failings.

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