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Margaret Drabble is probably best known for her novels, and for editing two editions of The Oxford Companion to English Literature. A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman collects together 13 short stories, previously published in a wide range of magazines and anthologies between 1966 and 2000, in book form for the first time.
Jose Francisco Fernandez, who has written the introduction, is clearly a great admirer of her work, and his introduction and Note on the Texts offers some background to the original publication of the stories and highlights some of the connections between the short stories and the novels. The diversity of publications intrigued me, ranging from 1970s feminist magazines like Spare Rib and Ms, much more mass market and mainstream publications like Cosmopolitan, and various anthologies. The stories are arranged in chronological order. He also mentions some anecdotes about the stories which are intriguing but I'm not sure I believe some of them. One allegation is that a youth organisation, the Woodcraft Folk sued over the description of them as "a kind of guerrilla warfare training for Marxist boy scouts". This is in the story "Homework", a remark made by a very unreliable narrator. This is a comment made by a character whom readers wouldn't find very trustworthy in a fictional work, not a statement in a piece of factual writing - why sue?
I enjoy reading literary short stories by women writers like Katherine Mansfield, Mavis Gallant, Margaret Atwood and Angela Carter, but I was disappointed by these ones. Some seem rather overwritten, with long paragraphs and sentences and too many adjectives which don't add much. The majority are told in the third person, and many of the third and first person stories are heavy on the irony. This made me feel very distant from the characters.
My two favourite stories were "The Dower House at Kellynch" and "Stepping Westward", both about the same house and told in the first person. One is about a woman who has become obsessed with the house in the title; the other is about a woman on holiday alone, asserting her independence.
I was less interested in the other stories about affairs and relationships, and I was annoyed by some of them, for example, the attack on political activists in "The Gifts of War" about the issue of buying (or not buying) military toys for children. The characters opposed to war toys are shown as sanctimonious creeps here.
I have mixed feelings about this book - I wonder if I should give some of the stories another chance, whether I would like them more at a different time. I still have some of her novels and hope to read or reread them at some point, and I will probably keep this book so I can compare work with common themes, and because there are a couple of better or more interesting pieces. Also, it is very attractively presented, and I enjoy looking at it if not reading it.
I think this is a book for existing admirers of Margaret Drabble's work rather than for those looking for an introduction.
I received a free copy of this book through the Amazon Vine reviewers' program, and a shorter version of this review previously appeared there.
Penguin Classics 30 June 2011,
Hardback 223 pages
RRP £20, Amazon £11.23, Kindle £9.99