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Review: New collection roams as many extremes as Jean Stafford’s Golden State

Book cover with a photo of Jean Stafford and the text “Stafford Complete Novels Boston Adventure The Mountain Lion The Catherine Wheel.”
(Library of America)

You can take the writer out of California but you can’t take California out of the writer — or at least so I prefer to imagine, in my romantic fashion, during these dark days in which everything beautiful about the Golden State seems to be burning.

Jean Stafford was born and raised in California (on a West Covina walnut farm). While she spent her life continually moving east (to Colorado, Missouri, New York), Stafford often looked back fondly at the West’s wide amenable spaces.

In many further ways, she swung restlessly across extremes. She studied, worked and partied with both members of the Southern-based “Fugitives” (poets and critics like Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren), who argued that artful writing was more about form than experience, as well as the more East Coast-leaning Partisan Review crowd (Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy), who argued, well, the opposite.

Even her marriages charted a broad psycho-social shift: Her first was to conservative Robert Lowell, who demanded she convert with him to Catholicism and eventually divorced her. Finally, she married Manhattan Jewish journalist, A.J. Liebling, who provided a happier match. But after Liebling’s sudden death in 1963, Stafford suffered increasingly serious problems with drinking and depression, and wrote less frequently.

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This excellent, handsome new edition of Stafford’s novels provides excellent testimony that her California-like embrace of extremes may be just what our culturally fractious age needs.

“Boston Adventure” (1944) stands as a textbook example of formal dexterity and invention. Protagonist Sonie Marburg is a young girl living in the working-class suburbs of Boston with an angry German shoemaker for a father, and a beautiful, emotionally unstable Russian mother. Amid all this domestic sweat and struggle, Sonie dreams of befriending an elderly resident at the local hotel where she works, in passages of black humor that will make readers laugh (and shudder) aloud. She journeys from one cold emotional landscape to another even colder one (the fate of many Stafford protagonists). But in every scene, Sonie delivers her rich perceptions in elegant, funny paragraphs, treating each room and person she meets as a fascinating alien landscape — one that can be closely observed, but never entirely understood. Sentence for sentence, “The Boston Adventure” is as beautifully composed as any American novel I have ever read.

Stafford’s second novel, “The Mountain Lion” (1947), proves she hadn’t lost her taste for extremes. She swung back westward again to the West Covina of her childhood. “Lion” concerns young people coming of age in a world that doesn’t care about them; and the dual-protagonist-siblings, Ralph and Molly, grow up trying to invent their own versions of adulthood. For Molly, it’s a secret region of poetry, fantasy and fiction; for Ralph, it’s the dusty, wide territories of hardworking, outdoor-yearning men. Like everything Stafford wrote, this is a funny, dark book, with the shadow of a great beast pacing in the high brush.

And it’s impossible to open to a paragraph that doesn’t make you want to read it out loud, such as when Molly makes her last trip home to California and notes, “Now and again her care-worn melancholy made her suddenly self-contemptuous and she brushed it off like a spider.”

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With her third novel, Stafford swings East again — and by now such wide geographical shifts of attention aren’t surprising. “The Catherine Wheel” (1952) envisions adolescence as a form of slow torture twisting unusual children into ugly adult shapes and slows the narrative pace to a subjective drone of thoughts, experiences, memories, observations and reflections. It’s reminiscent of late Henry James — but unlike James, Stafford knew when it was all getting to be a bit too slow. Which is probably why this turned out to be the last of her excellent novels and she spent the rest of her career writing short stories.

It is hard to think of an American writer whose work embraced so many extremes: novels and short stories, formal excellence and experiential detail, Proustian paragraphs and Steinbeckian ranch hands, Boston and Covina. With this new “rediscovery” of her old work (I just wish there was some way Library of America could make the pages a little less tissue-papery thin!) she deserves to be embraced by readers all over again.

Complete Novels: Boston Adventure, The Mountain Lion & The Catherine Wheel

By Jean Stafford

Edited by Kathryn Davis

Library of America: 894 pages; $40

Bradfield is the author of, most recently, “Dazzle Resplendent: Adventures of a Misanthropic Dog.”


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