The narrator of the titular story in Hilma Wolitzer's luminous collection "Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket" is one of several spectators to a stranger's breakdown in a grocery store.
Wolitzer makes room for the unsurprising reactions from fellow shoppers — curiosity, altruism, advice — but also, strikingly, the self-importance the narrator feels as she competes with the store manager: "I knew that I was vying with Mr. A. We were playing detective, savior, twenty questions."
This capacity for self-reflection marks many of the smart, hungry and astoundingly funny women in these stories.
Longing, and its consequences, are of central interest here. In "Waiting for Daddy," the young narrator returns from a date to find her mother and grandmother living lives of seeming innocence: "Their kitchen was full of piecework and vague hope for the future." Wolitzer invokes a cyclical sensibility without losing the immediacy of the narrator's feeling that she is "struck with experience."
Several stories — including "Photographs, Mrs. X, Sundays, Nights," and others — feature the same family: narrator Paulette, her husband Howard, and (eventually) their children, Jason and Ann. Paulette is a delightful and complex narrator, equal parts witty and sad.
In "Sundays," her husband "shuffles in, still convalescing from his childhood." In "Photographs," Paulette, in labor, sees her hospital room: "A Room of One's Own, I thought bitterly." Rushing her family out for a drive in "Sundays," she decides to "hide the dishes under a veil of suds."
Wolitzer's narrators harbor unabashed desire; Paulette's gaze on her husband gives the reader "his ear, unspeakably vulnerable, waxen and convoluted." She both longs for him and is unapologetically unsatisfied: "I want nothing. I want everything," she says in "Nights."
In "Overtime," Wolitzer shifts into the comically unlikely, when Howard's hypochondriac ex-wife, Reenie, moves in with the family and Paulette tries to help her find a new husband.
The majority of these stories were written in the 1970s. (Wolitzer is mother to novelist Meg Wolitzer.) The magnificent, heartbreaking "Mother" (1987) is an exception, as is "The Great Escape," the final story, written and set in 2020. Howard and Paulette, now elderly, initially dismiss their daughter Ann's warning about the "novel coronavirus." The outcome of their exposure is written in haunting, deliberative, utterly convincing prose.
Reflecting on her long marriage to Howard, and on the routines of their later years, Paulette thinks of the time as "exquisitely boring and beautiful." Far from boring, and beautiful indeed, this is a stunning and memorable collection.
Jackie Thomas-Kennedy's writing has appeared in One Story, Electric Literature, Lenny Letter, Narrative, Harvard Review, the Ploughshares blog and elsewhere. She held a 2014-2016 Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.
Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket
By: Hilma Wolitzer.
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 179 pages, $26.