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The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield

The Garden Party and Other Stories - Katherine Mansfield, Lorna Sage

This is a collection of sharply-observed short stories, very well-written, that bring their realistic characters and vivid scenes quickly to life. I admired but didn’t love them; Mansfield was (famously as it turns out) less focused on plot than on character and mood, and I like stronger endings to short stories than these have. At the same time, they’re so obviously good that I wish they’d done more for me than they did.

Even so, I often did enjoy them, particularly the longer stories. “At the Bay,” the first and longest of the collection, is a panorama of a family vacation community, in which not too much happens but the characters and their surroundings come vividly to life. “The Garden Party,” also very strong, follows a teenage girl whose humanitarian instincts are thwarted by family and society, a story marred only by a rather vague ending.

Then too, the stories show an impressive understanding for a young woman (Mansfield died at 34, not long after the publication of this collection). “Marriage a la Mode” and “The Ideal Family” showcase men whose wives and children – and in the former case, a whole frivolous circle of the wife’s friends – live blithely off their earnings without quite seeing them as people; I am not sure if Mansfield would have seen this as a criticism of patriarchy, but this is how they read to the modern eye. The stories of the woes of working-class characters seemed less successful to me, as they are shorter and do less to develop their protagonists’ inner lives.

The shorter stories overall didn’t do a lot for me; scenes from “The Voyage,” for instance, stand out vividly, but without more of a plot to tie it all together, these are disconnected images rather than part of a coherent whole. There are brilliant characters here, and I wish I could have seen more of them. I would happily read more of Mansfield’s writing; it’s such a shame she didn’t have the chance to further develop her art.