Throughout her more than 50-year career Hilma Wolitzer has excelled at domestic dramas, focusing on the hilarious or heartbreaking moments that can make or break a marriage — or a woman’s sanity.
As the title story of the 91-year-old author’s new collection, “Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket,” reveals, those moments are often linked. Desperate to console her rambling fellow shopper, the pregnant narrator directs the concerned store manager in a search for the poor woman’s missing husband, who ultimately arrives to take her away. For a moment, our narrator sees herself as a heroine — “I imagined, giddily, an engraved card coming in the mail: ‘Mr. Harold Lewis and family thank you for the kindness extended to Mrs. Lewis in her time of need’” — before collapsing at home at the futility of it all. That this story is the oldest in the collection, dating back to 1966, makes no difference. We are all railing against the void. “There was nothing I could do. Nothing at all.”
Not that Wolitzer’s protagonists don’t try. In each of these 13 stories, most previously published in the 1970s in magazines ranging from Esquire to The Saturday Evening Post, her otherwise unremarkable women take up the good fight with a vengeance. Insecurity is balanced against annoyance at a gossip’s insinuations; a needy ex is indulged, as much as can be. An unthinkable crime is weighed and measured — and, perhaps, forgiven. Bodies and, yes, husbands, betray these women, and yet somehow they carry on. Accommodations are reached, and the resulting compromises are not without their sometimes bitterly gleeful pleasures. Wolitzer’s protagonists are lusty and full of life, and they’re not above revenge, at least in their minds.
Along with their shared plights and appetites, there is a certain sameness to Wolitzer’s straight, married, and presumably white protagonists. But while there may be a uniformity to her characters, the details give them a specificity that makes them recognizable as individuals, giving their fears and desires flesh. “Your eyes and your hands used to be wild and your breath came in desperate gulps,” one long-married narrator recalls the early days of a relationship. “But whose love is not unfair?”
“Nights,” a standout even in this consistently fine collection, pits the narrator against her own restless mind. As she battles insomnia, thoughts and images pop up and circle back in what would be a nightmarish fashion, if only she could sleep. “A song I have not heard in years comes into my head,” she notes, only to leave “like a bird from a tree. Instantly other birds flock in: shopping lists, the 20/20 line on the eye chart, a chain letter to which I never responded.” It’s a fruitless struggle, but she goes down fighting. “I am the only one here. I am the only one left in the dark world, the only one who cares enough to stay awake the long and awful night.”
The one new story (and, at 29 pages, the collection’s longest), “The Great Escape,” takes us unmistakably into the present. Her recurring characters Howard and Paulette have aged into something close to acceptance: “Every once in a while, out of nowhere, I would remember his infidelities with a startling sting.” But more current crises loom: As the long-married couple prepare for their first great-grandchild, COVID-19 hits. “Listen, Mom,” their daughter calls to say, “There’s something going around, a virus.”
The pandemic intensifies the domesticity that is Wolitzer’s metier. Thrown together, Paulette and Howard’s differences grate. She wants to talk about death or, specifically, the possibility of an afterlife. He does not. “The bed creaked now with his restless displeasure.” Old age exacerbates their discomforts and indignities. Their weekly housecleaner stops coming in and Paulette must wrestle with the unfamiliar vacuum cleaner; Howard is debilitated by an ingrown toenail.
Even as the pandemic rages, Wolitzer finds humor, sending Paulette’s regular book group to Zoom: “Just hit your damn mute button!” the organizer commands. But the world has become strange. “I wore a mask and gloves like almost everyone else I saw on the street,” Paulette says. “We all looked like aliens, like expressionless robots.” A “barefaced young man” reacts badly when she asks him to don a mask, and there’s worse to come. Wolitzer, who survived COVID but lost her own husband to it, once again wields the salient particulars to conjure a time, an illness, and life’s inevitable heartaches. That she does so while keeping us engaged with these very ordinary characters speaks to her skill and her humanity.
TODAY A WOMAN WENT MAD IN THE SUPERMARKET: STORIES
By Hilma Wolitzer
Bloomsbury, 208 pp., $26