The Cost Of Living, By Mavis Gallant

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The Independent Culture

Largely selected from the pages of The New Yorker, this collection of the early work of Canadian short story writer, Mavis Gallant, kicks off with her first published story, "Madeline's Birthday" (1951), and ends with the novella-length "The Burgundy Weekend" (1971). As with the best writers of short fiction, Gallant's primary subject is loneliness and the exquisite sadness of being exiled from home.

Drawing from the author's own experience of expatriate life – Gallant has lived in Paris for over 60 years – the stories travel between Montreal and New York, Germany and the Left Bank. A whiff of post-war austerity hangs over many of the early entries, stories that see Gallant's New World visitors adapting to the shock of arrival in a Europe where rotting vegetables are still rescued from bins and ethnic identities obscured.

The title story of the book, in which Australians come to live in Paris, is particularly redolent of the period. Taking up residence in a run-down hotel on the south side of the Luxembourg Gardens, sisters Lulu and Puss are stunned by the cold and dark of a city where the only natural light on the street "was the blue neon sign of a snack bar". Careful with their money, Lulu, the more parsimonious of the two, starts to keep an account of their expenditure. It's only when she returns home that Puss discovers from the ledger that she's been buying expensive gifts for the grubby young girl who lives in the room next door – although she hasn't been able to bring herself to record their true price.

The cost of human relationships runs through much of Gallant's fiction in stories that capture the missed opportunities between husbands and wives, parents and children. In the melancholy story "Autumn Day", 19-year-old Cissy travels to Salzburg to join her new husband serving in the American military. Still dressed in girlish Peter Pan collars, and fuzzy about the mechanics of sex, she finds herself sharing a twin bedroom with a man ten years her senior to whom she has nothing to say. It's only towards the end of the story that she glimpses that his unhappiness might be every bit as great as hers.

Over the 20-year period covered by the collection, Gallant experiments with first- and third- person narratives, bringing new depths to her masterly portraits of these congenitally restless men and women. As Jhumpa Lahiri so nicely puts it in her introduction: "Never have characters adrift been so effectively moored."