Anna Noyes’ first story collection, “Goodnight, Beautiful Women,” explores the beauty and hardship of life in small-town Maine. Some of the stories take an interest in “summer girls” and the way class differences manifest themselves — a near inevitability when writing about the New England coast — but these stories are far less interested in that dichotomy than they are in guilt.
Guilt provides this work much of its urgency, aided by sharp, confident prose. Noyes gives us clothing “hemmed to expose a whittled inch of wrist or ankle,” a woman’s complaint that her partner “says ‘queechee’ when he’s ordering quiche,” a mother touching a gold coin “like a magpie with a shiny wrapper.” Noyes writes of abusive and predatory men — a father in “Treelaw,” an older neighbor in “The Quarry” — and the girls who defend them (“Dad only touched me twice. Both times he was gentle and looked bewildered.”). These characters often find themselves defending the indefensible.
“Drawing Blood” is an example of the way guilt haunts these pages (as well as Noyes’ occasional tendency to cram a novel into a small space). Mary, a widow, addresses her tale to Eva, her former lover and servant. “Nicholas has been dead twenty years, you’ll be glad to know,” she says, giving the reader a hint of the eeriness to come. Before Mary weds Nicholas, he takes Eva to a dance, returning her with visible damages: “I said nothing about the bruises on your arms,” Mary recalls. “You returned my silk underthings clean and faintly stained.” The guilt, it turns out, is not truly about this silence, the moment of saying “nothing” after her lover has been harmed. The guilt comes from Mary’s admission of pleasure when she reflects on her life with Nicholas: “The terrible truth is that I wanted to hate him,” she says, but explains that she “need[ed]” and “crave[d]” the violent man who became her husband. “Drawing Blood” covers a longer span of time than most of these stories, and includes dramatic events (such as the death of Mary’s brother) that aren’t given enough space on the page to be meaningful.
But this story is one of a few exceptions; for the most part, Noyes’ narrators maintain a narrow focus on a single person or event. In “Hibernation,” Joni watches her husband’s mental health unravel as he throws household items into the quarry; eventually, he lets himself fall in. In the titular story, a girl returns home from boarding school and winds up trying to parent her own mother, who impulsively leaves her partner at a gas station. Gritty, beautiful and full of loss, Noyes’ stories make an impressive debut.
Jackie Thomas-Kennedy is a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. Her fiction has appeared in Narrative, Glimmer Train, SLICE, Madison Review, StoryQuarterly and elsewhere.
Goodnight, Beautiful Women
By: Anna Noyes.
Publisher: Grove Press, 216 pages, $24.