The Cost of Living by Mavis Gallant – stories from 1956-71 

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the first batch of stories from The Cost of Living, a collection of early and uncollected pieces by the Canadian writer Mavis Gallant. (If you missed my posts, you can read them by clicking on the links here and here.) In short, Gallant’s stories are excellent. The very best of them feel like novels in miniature; the kind of tales where everything is compressed, only for the scenarios to expand in the mind as the reader reflects.

Since then, I’ve read the rest of the collection and would recommend it to anyone interested in character-driven stories, especially those that delve into the inner lives of mid-20th-century women. In this post, I’m going to pick out a few highlights from the second half of the book, focusing on two stories that resonated particularly strongly with me. 

Gallant is particularly incisive on the emptiness of suburban domesticity, the type of stifling, loveless marriage depicted in Mad Men and the novels of Richard Yates. In Bernadette (1957), we are introduced to Nora and Robbie Knight, whose transition from freewheeling liberal arts types to hypocritical middle-class suburbanites has taken place over several years.

The Knights had been married nearly sixteen years. They considered themselves solidly united. Like many people no longer in love, they cemented their relationship with opinions, pet prejudices, secret meetings, a private vocabulary that enabled them to exchange amused glances over a dinner table and made them feel a shade superior to the world outside the house. Their home held them, and their two daughters, now in boarding school. Private schools were out of line with the Knights’ social beliefs, but in the case of their own children they had judged a private school essential. (pp. 130–131)

The Knights live in a large house near Montreal, Robbie’s salary being sufficient to support a live-in maid, Bernadette, and a private education for their two daughters. (In essence, the girls are in boarding school because Nora doesn’t ‘trust herself to bring them up’.) While Nora likes to view herself as the host of successful, intellectually-stimulating dinner parties, Robbie amuses himself with various extra-marital affairs, much to his wife’s disdain. And yet, like many unfaithful husbands from this era, Robbie is forgiven, with Nora claiming the moral high ground in light of her husband’s indefensible position. 

When Bernadette falls pregnant as the result of a casual encounter, it proves to be the driver for the story. Once Nora becomes aware of the situation, she tackles the young woman about her condition; Bernadette, however, is fearful of admitting it, inadvertently implicating Robbie out of worry over his likely reaction. As Nora prepares to confront Robbie over this potential infidelity, the hollow nature of the couple’s marriage becomes increasingly apparent.

He [Robbie] went on reading. He looked so innocent, so unaware that his life was shattered. Nora remembered how he had been when she had first known him, so pleasant and dependent and good-looking and stupid. She remembered how he had been going to write a play, and how she had wanted to change the world, or at least Quebec. Tears of fatigue and strain came into her eyes. She felt that the failure of last night’s party had been a symbol of the end. Robbie had done something cheap and dishonourable, but he reflected their world. The world was ugly, Montreal was ugly, the street outside the window contained houses of surpassing ugliness. There was nothing left to discuss but television and the fluctuating dollar; that was what the world had become. (p. 151)

As the story draws to a close, there is a reversal of sorts in the marital power dynamics as Nora realises that Robbie is innocent – in this instance, at least. For once, it is Robbie who is in a position to seize the moral high ground, leaving Nora scrambling to re-establish their natural equilibrium. This is an excellent story, one that exposes the fault lines in a bourgeois marriage to striking effect.

One of the most interesting things about this collection is that it offers an opportunity to track Gallant’s development as a writer over time as the stories are presented chronologically. Some of the later stories are particularly nuanced and fluid, pieces like The Cost of Living (1962), which captures the bohemian lifestyle of a group of lodgers in France. The setting is a down-at-heel hotel in Paris, a dark and dusty environment in the midst of the city.

The story is narrated by Puss (short for Patricia), an unmarried Australian woman in her early thirties, resident in Paris for some five years. Puss has recently been joined in Paris by her elder sister, Louise, who, having inherited the family’s money, is the wealthier of the two women. Even though Louise can afford better, she chooses to remain frugal by lodging at the same shabby hotel as Puss. Occupying rooms nearby are the other two central characters in the story, both of whom are French: Patrick, an aspiring actor with a desire to travel, and Sylvie, another creative type, a ‘blurred impression of mangled hair and shining eyes’.

In this piece, Gallant perfectly captures the up-close-and-personal nature of life in a relatively confined space. The characters flit in and out of one another’s rooms, borrowing clothes and money, jostling for the use of the communal bathroom and other shared resources. The loose-living Sylvie is brilliantly portrayed.

Her scarf, her gloves flew from her like birds. His shoes could never keep up with her feet. One of my memories of Sylvie–long before I knew anything about her, before I knew even her name–is of her halting, cursing loudly with a shamed smile, scrambling up or down a few steps, and shoving a foot back into a lost ballerina shoe. She wore those thin slippers out on the streets, under the winter rain. And she wore a checked shirt, a blue sweater, and a scuffed plastic jacket that might have belonged to a boy. Passing her, as she hung over the banister calling to someone below, you saw the tensed muscle of an arm or leg, the young neck, the impertinent head. Someone ought to have drawn her–but somebody has: Sylvie was the core and grubby Degas dancer, the girl with the shoulder thrown back and the insolent chin. (pp. 206–207)

Money is a significant factor in the story, particularly the passing of it from one person to another. Rather tellingly, Louise keeps a detailed record of all her expenditure in a notebook, classifying each entry as either ‘Necessary’ or ‘Unnecessary’, reflecting the apparent value she places on various relationships.

So, in summary, The Cost of Living is a terrific collection. Across the volume as a whole, there are stories of uncaring mothers and self-absorbed fathers, of isolated wives and bewildered husbands, of smart, self-reliant children who must learn to take care of themselves. Many of Gallant’s protagonists seem to lack a degree of self-awareness, the ability to turn a mirror on themselves and see their faults and failings for what they really are. These are thoughtful, perceptive vignettes, beautifully sketched.

The Cost of Living is published by NYRB Classics and Bloomsbury; personal copy.  

22 thoughts on “The Cost of Living by Mavis Gallant – stories from 1956-71 

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I’m glad to have finally ‘discovered’ her, better late than never! The exchange rate is a bit of a killer, isn’t it? I asked a friend (who’s spending some time in the US right now) to look for a couple of NYRB Classics for me, especially if they’re in the sale. No luck yet, but you never know…

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, definitely. I don’t know if you’ve read any Richard Yates, but they remind me of some of his stories (and his novel The Easter Parade), partly for their settings and general ‘feel’.

  1. Julé Cunningham

    I smiled when I saw the subject of your post this morning; I recently pulled out a big collection of Gallant’s stories and stuck it on Mount TBR. It feels like it’s been so long since last reading her work; the writing is sharp and exquisite, the characters true.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, how timey! I’ll be fascinated to hear your thoughts on some of the stories. Sharp and exquisite is a great description. She manages to fit so much into each story, so you always feel you have a clear grip of her characters – what they’re thinking, how they’re feeling, the various challenges they’re facing etc. And, as you say, they definitely ring true.

  2. heavenali

    I have often thought I would enjoy Mavis Gallant, I read lots of posts about her from Buried in Print. Your previous enthusiasm persuaded me further. These stories sound wonderful, depictions of real life are always so appealing to me.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think Buried in Print worked her way through all of Gallant’s stories a few years ago, so I must go back and see what she wrote about this collection!

      You’d like Gallant, I think. Quite a few of her stories are available to read through The New Yorker’s archive, so you could also try one or two there if you’re interested. Here’s a link to a selection:

  3. Liz Dexter

    I’ve not read any Gallant, even though I feel I would like her. Would this be a good place to start, esp knowing I like reading people’s work in order of publication?

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes. I think this would be a good place to start, especially if you prefer to read in order of publication. The book comprises ‘early and uncollected stories’, and the first eight or so (reviewed in the posts I’ve linked to below) are stories published between 1951 and 1955. It looks like her first story collection (The Other Paris) came out in 1956, but it’s probably OOP. So you could pick up a copy of this ‘Cost of Living’ collection and read the first eight or so pieces to see how you get on?

      The Cost of Living by Mavis Gallant – stories from 1951-55

      Thieves and Rascals by Mavis Gallant – a post for the #1956Club

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  5. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Hi Jacqui! I’m fairly late to this party (although I’ve been later) but I did want to say “thanks” for the great review (as soon as I read it, I rushed off to check out my “Gallant material” & forgot to return for a comment!0. Gallant’s a writer who’s been on my “to be explored” list for same time. Although her short stories sound great, I’m actually eager to try one of her novels (I think she wrote two, Green Water, Green Sky and A Fairly Good Time.), which I have thanks to one of those great NYRB Classics flash sales.,

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Those NYRB Classics flash sales must be so tempting. In some ways, it’s a good job that I don’t live in the US, otherwise the lure of those offers would be overwhelming! I’ll be interested to hear how you get on with Gallant – and your thoughts on the two novels. Green Water, Green Sky sounds particularly appealing…

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