Rosemary Friedman has been writing satisfying short stories for over fifty years. Sarah Lawson reviews a recent compilation and tries to work out how she does it.
The Man Who Understood Women and Other Stories
The Man Who Understood Women and Other Stories is a collection of Rosemary Friedman’s magazine fiction over a period of more than fifty years. There is a telling change in Friedman’s work over this span that reflects the changes in women’s view of themselves and also, of course, Friedman’s own development as a short story writer. The first of the 28 stories dates from 1956 and the last from 2013.
The stories are mainly but not exclusively about women, typically well-heeled types in London and the Home Counties, but Friedman also offers a few American scenarios. They were originally printed in quite a wide variety of magazines in both Britain and the United States, but we aren’t told which story appeared where. I was curious to know about the intended audiences when they were first published.
The title story is, as you might suspect, highly ironic, and the man who understood women obliviously precipitates his wife’s suicide. He ‘understands women’ up to a point, and we see all along that something is going to go pear-shaped, but we are not entirely prepared for the last sentence.
Rosemary Friedman’s stories often have a satisfying twist at the end, and her skill is there from very early on. One of my favourites, ‘The Food of Love’, reminded me somewhat of Guy de Maupassant. A man sees an attractive woman, finds out where she lives and that she gives violin lessons. Completely unmusical, he nevertheless decides to present himself as an aspiring violin pupil. He is a terrible pupil, tone deaf and inept, but he is so besotted with his teacher that he contrives to have his lessons on different days of the week to see if she shares her home with anyone else. He tells her about himself, but she divulges no personal details of her own. The suspense builds up nicely. Both the young man and the reader are intrigued to know more about the beautiful violin teacher, and then—cue the surprise ending!
There are stories of generational differences. (‘In our day the only things that were “switched on” were the lights.’) Some stories look at marital dynamics; there are commentaries on mother-daughter relationships and the empty-nest experience. In ‘I’ll Pay Half’, published in 1975, there is a domineering mother who subtly dictates her daughter’s wardrobe, but the daughter draws the line when it comes to choosing a life partner. That story, like many of Rosemary Friedman’s, is told from a first-person point of view.
In ‘A Very Even Break’. from 1966, the narrator is a successful newspaper columnist specialising in celebrity gossip. She knows everyone and is influential in furthering reputations and careers. Once many years before, she was a struggling reporter and was treated badly by an arrogant and uncooperative movie star, who now needs her help in landing an important part. Now the shoe is on the other foot; the supplicant is the patronising actor and the bestower of favours is the journalist. Friedman was already a skilled creator of dialogue when this was written, and the irritating actor comes across very well, as does the now confident journalist who is playing her cards close to her chest while remembering the hurtful slight in the past.
Another of Friedman’s techniques is to start with a scene in the present and then take us back to developments that have led to this present, from which she then continues the story. In ‘A Very Even Break’ the narrator explains how her career progressed in spite of the disastrous interview a decade before with the famous Clint McGowan, who now needs her help.
The journalist reveals to Clint that she writes her column under a married name but she and her husband are divorced: ‘ “You’re not married then?” I saw a calculating look in his eye.’ Ah, but she has remarried. The suspense is handled beautifully and the denouement comes literally in the final line of the story. O. Henry could not have managed it better.
Friedman is at her best when she is developing a situation with a startling surprise at the end. After one of her bombshells, it is very satisfying to reread the story and see how she has cleverly led up to the bombshell, concealing the clues in plain sight. The clues are there all right, if only visible the second time around. One of the signs of a well constructed narrative is the planting of easily overlooked clues, and there are several fine examples here. The publisher presents the collection as a kind of sociological study in the changing roles of women, but it is also a fine display of Rosemary Friedman’s skill as a storyteller.
Sarah Lawson is an American-born London-based writer whose novel The Bohemian Pirate has recently been reviewed in London Grip. Her most recent collections of poetry are All the Tea in China and The Wisteria’s Children, a collection of 100 haiku.