Withholding and Revealing in Lily King’s Five Tuesdays in Winter
Five Tuesdays in Winter
Grove Atlantic | November 9, 2021
In Five Tuesdays in Winter, Lily King’s first short story collection, characters contend with the push and pull of withholding and revealing, and what happens when this balance is disrupted. In the stories, often the resolution reached is tenuous, but other times, the revelation leads to violence. In the distance between these two endings, King showcases her range as a short story writer, never allowing the reader to become too sure about her stories. She delivers, what Ben Marcus calls, a “chemical disruption . . . pumping [language] into us until we collapse on the floor, writhing, overwhelmed with feeling.”
“Creature,” for example, the first and longest story, illustrates Marcus’s point perfectly. Carol, a young budding writer, is asked to be a live-in nanny for a wealthy family during a few summer weeks. She takes care of the children and observes how their mother and grandmother change when the mother’s brother Hugh arrives. Carol is also affected by his presence. She develops her obsession in a long, Jane Eyre-inspired letter she writes to a friend. The letter is like Chekov’s gun, and once the balance between secret and shared knowledge is disrupted, King keeps the tension high between an experienced and untrustworthy Hugh and an innocent and too-trusting Carol.
Throughout the collection, King continually builds tension and obliterates expectation, keeping the reader in a constant state of surprise. The most surprising story is the last in the collection, “The Man at the Door,” which blends realism and fantasy. The unnamed narrator answers the door while breastfeeding her baby and working on her secret novel. The man has a copy of the narrator’s book—published despite the fact that she’s still working on it—and wants to give his critique. He says this about her ending: “Why do you people [i.e. mothers, women] even try to write scenes of violence? It’s not your genre; it’s not your nature.” In a tense delivery of meta-commentary about writing, the male critic’s challenge allows the narrator’s anger, accumulated throughout the story—by her interrupted writing, her crying baby, and her similarities between the critic and her alcoholic parents—to be expressed and ultimately leads to the violent ending the critic claimed her impossible of writing. With violence, the narrator breaks through the critic’s stereotypes and writes her own ending.
King’s collection continually breaks through stereotypes, defying expectation and not allowing the reader to pinpoint anything typical about her short stories. We see this in the range of King’s narrators: they are young, old and in-between; male and female; straight and gay; writers and non-writers; native English speakers and non-native speakers. King uses a diverse range of places, voices, and identities in Five Tuesdays in Winter, and yet with all the variety, one thing stayed the same: King’s compassion for her characters. For instance, “When in the Dordogne” is narrated by a man remembering the summer he was fourteen and two college students were hired to take care of his house so his parents could go to France. He says, “As I came with the house, these two college boys were obliged to take care of me too.” At once we know the narrator believes he is an afterthought. As the story advances, it becomes clear that this isn’t what the two college boys believe. They are portrayed as quite typical—full of energy, dreams, and French class—as they selflessly care for the narrator. They race around the house while revealing to the narrator a new way of living in it; they make him food, ask him what makes him happy, and do not allow him to answer, “Nothing.” As the two boys attend to the narrator, they make him feel noticed and interesting, treating him with the same compassion with which King treats all her characters in the collection.
King’s care for her characters means that they are never simplified but allowed to revel in their complexity. The variety and disruptions are just other ways King honors how human life is never what we think it is, always changing and morphing. By allowing characters their full range of pain, vulnerability, and happiness, Five Tuesdays in Winter drops readers into imperfect lives, evoking awe and anger and admiration and futility, reminding us how it feels to be human.