The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick, By Elizabeth Hardwick

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The Independent Culture

The earlier stories in this collection are wonderful. The power of them isn't evident in any one line but gathers slowly, often sneaking in under cover of irony. The characters – a mix of upper-class intellectuals and down-at-heel bohemians – might present well to each other, but Elizabeth Hardwick is not fooled. Concisely, and without sentiment, she shows the knife twisting in the heart of each tale, and forces her cast to confront it.

The last five stories, written after the death of her husband, the poet Robert Lowell, in 1977, get close to prose-poetry, as Hardwick tries to recreate the experience of Manhattan. They don't work as well and at worst feel a bit like an exercise: a drifting stream punctuated by mini-biographies. Darryl Pinckney's introduction praises them as "investigations of an atmosphere", but the best moments come when Hardwick's gaze snags on fellow New Yorkers: the ramshackle owner of a second-hand bookshop, a beautiful man reading in the New York Public Library, or a black maid working in an upmarket brownstone.

This is never bad or boring writing – just a mind which moved from straightforward storytelling toward expressions of moods.