THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Book Review

Short glimpses of women as voyeurs

By Judy Budz
Globe Correspondent / January 29, 2010

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The stories in Joan Frank’s collection, “In Envy’s Country,’’ are bitingly ironic, provocative scenes of contemporary life, so complete that they will satisfy readers who typically grab 400-page novels. There are no recurring characters in the style of Olive Kitteridge. But these stories, which won the 2009 Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction at the University of Notre Dame, are powerfully connected in content and tone, since each is reflected through an observing narrator, always a woman, who ponders the complexities of life around her.

Frank sets her stories in the familiar territory of office, home, family dinners, and European vacations, but they still surprise. In “A Note on the Type,’’ we watch Rochelle, a conniving office worker, plot her way to an easy berth at work by ingratiating herself with the boss and, more important, with the boss’s wife. In another, “Betting on Men,’’ an administrative assistant is caught in the struggle between her boss and the company’s chief executive, who is determined to cash in; when the squabbling men simultaneously turn to her for support, she yearns only to be “left alone.’’ In “Rearview,’’ an almost-wicked stepmother and her messed-up daughter revise the romantic dreams of a young girl into a more confusing reality; and in “A Thing that Happens,’’ another young woman, on vacation from Oberlin, where she takes a feminist studies class, listens in surprise and confusion as a family friend, who she believed was happy in her marriage, tearfully announces her dismay with the fact that men instinctively demand physical perfection in women.

The art of these stories is in their telling, and even in the saddest of them, Frank hits precisely the right note. Often, the stories are funny. The administrative assistant survives by learning to “lie like a pimp - with a sincerity that amazed even her.’’ Lena, in the title story, envies the fabulous house of her mentor, Karen, a local TV personality. Karen is a master networker, who “gets lives to intersect and form something: a sort of human Scrabble.’’ We smile at the Scrabble analogy, but sometimes Frank’s imagery is meant to shock. In “Sandy Candy,’’ a middle-aged American couple attends a Spanish strip show. The star is 63-year-old Sandy Candy, whose act is humiliating and obscene. The American wife is sickened by the scene, upset both by the dehumanization of the performer and the raucous response of the drunken tourist crowd. In their room later that night, the husband is bewildered by the wife’s distress: “Is this hormonal?’’ he asks. Frank suggests that this husband, like the young Oberlin girl, does not fully understand the toll a lifetime of objectification takes on women.

In all cases, Frank’s observant women are voyeurs, not infrequently “enchanted’’ by the tensions of others. Watching her friends fight, Lena appreciates again the stability created for her by her husband. She pauses: What if someone is actually “training opera glasses on her own distracted days?’’ No matter. She and Phil order a pizza and continue to watch the show.

The theme of looking and seeing peak in the final story, “The Sun on the Ganges.’’ In this one, an arrogant doctor tells another couple about the long ago suicide of his medical school friend. The brilliant young student had gotten “involved’’ with an African mask, believing it had mysterious powers. The story is troubling and confusing; and the doctor, always so reserved, asks, “Can you see what I’m saying?’’ The question echoes Marlow’s complaint in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,’’ and likely the complaint of all writers. Telling a story is an act of faith. And Joan Frank, a perceptive, funny, and wise onlooker, skillfully reminds us that our job as readers is to pay attention.

Judy Budz is a professor of English at Fitchburg State College.

IN ENVY COUNTRY By Joan Frank

University of Notre Dame, 184 pp., $20