Evening in Paradise by Lucia Berlin: An unexpected treat

Cover image I owe my short story conversion largely to Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women. There’d been others along the way but it was Berlin’s collection that sealed the deal. Given that she died in 2004, I’d assumed that was it and so was delighted when Evening in Paradise turned up. Comprising twenty-two stories, this new collection lacks the more detailed biographical notes included in A Manual for Cleaning Women, perhaps because there’s a memoir due to be published alongside it, but it’s clear that it also draws on her own life and what a rackety life it was: several marriages, four children and alcoholism followed a peripatetic childhood spent in mining towns with a brief glamorous teenage period in Chile.

Opening in segregated Texas in 1943 with the bright childhood memories of ‘The Musical Vanity Boxes’, these are vivid stories which glow with evocative descriptive language, often set against gorgeous backdrops, from the Chilean countryside to the Mexican coastline and the Arizonan desert. Many explore relationships between men and women with a dry wit and sharp insight. Men are artists, musicians and writers who expect their wives to get on with the humdrum details of life such as sorting out the plumbing and bringing up the children, not to mention dealing with the former tenants who never quite move out in ‘The Adobe House with a Tin Roof’. Humour and social observation are hallmarks of Berlin’s style, exemplified in ‘My Life Is an Open Book’ which sees town gossips use the opportunity of a potential tragedy to rifle the home of a single mother in search of her address book, but she can be sombre, too. In ‘Anando’ an apparently sophisticated fourteen-year-old girl is groomed for seduction by her father’s boss almost with her father’s collusion. My two favourites, however, are both darkly comic: in ‘Cherry Blossom Time’ Cassandra, bored with her teeth-grindingly predictable routine, imagines something different with dramatic results while ‘The Wives’ sees two ex-wives compare remarkably similar intimate notes on their rich junkie ex-husband.

Berlin is such an immensely quotable author that it’s hard to know where to start with her writing, or perhaps that should be where to stop, but these are a few of my favourites:

Alma was sweet and beautiful until late in the evening when her eyes and mouth turned into bruises and her voice became a sob, like she just wished you’d hit her and leave. Ruby was close to fifty, lifted and dyed and patched together. (Evening in Paradise)

Downtown the Washington Market is deserted until midnight Sunday when suddenly the fruit and vegetable markets open out onto the streets, wild banners of lemons, plums, tangerines. (A Foggy Day)

The sky was filled with stars and it was as if there were so many that some were just jumping off the edge of it, tumbling and spilling into the night. Dozens, hundreds, millions of shooting stars until finally a wisp of cloud covered them and softly more clouds covered the sky above us. (Sometimes in Summer)

It would have been in poor taste for me to tell the girls at school just how many unbelievably handsome men had been at that funeral. I did anyway. (Dust to Dust)

In the airport women wore fur coats and their dogs wore fur coats. I was terrified by so many dogs. Little dogs with hair dyed peach to match the women’s hair. Painted toenails. Plaid bootees. Rhinestone or maybe diamond collars. The whole airport was yapping. (Itinerary)

I hope that’s whetted your appetite.

14 thoughts on “Evening in Paradise by Lucia Berlin: An unexpected treat”

  1. It sounds like she had an awfully interesting life! I do have this on my Kindle, and I like the quotes you’ve chosen (especially the yappy dogs), but I might be tempted to read her memoir first – I always have the best of intentions to read short stories, and have actually managed 11 collections so far this year, but for the most part they sit on the shelf or the e-reader unread.

  2. I just finished this last night and LOVED it; perfectly chosen excerpts. There are whole stories where I have to go back and look at how she does it: that clean, deceptively simple style that packs so much into so little. Andado is possibly my favourite in this collection (especially that subtitle, “A Gothic Romance” – poking at literary conventions, the big house, the older man…) but to be honest every one of them is brilliant. The first two, actually, were the ones that didn’t hook me; I nearly decided not to pick it up again after Sometimes In Summer, maybe because the child narrator wasn’t as interesting as the girls and women who narrate subsequently. (Have you noticed that she does this thing where the protagonist’s name often changes but details of their life remain the same from story to story? There are stories about women named Claire, and Maya, and Maggie, but they all have three or four sons whose names are Keith, Nathan, and Joel, e.g.)

    1. Delighted to hear that, Elle. You’re right about the recurrent events and themes. I took that to mean these were stories that drew own her own experience. The biographical notes in A Manual for Cleaning Women were excellent but I’m keen to read her memoir. Her writing is superb, clean and spare with a wonderfully acerbic edge.

  3. Yes, eminently quotable. If I didn’t already have so many short story collections in my TBR, then I might be tempted to buy this, particularly given the strength of her previous collection. As it is, I’m going to pass, but it does sound very good indeed. You can feel the influence of personal experiences in her stories, for sure.

    1. Yes, it was clear from the biographical notes in A Manual for Cleaning Women that she drew heavily on her life in her stories. I’m looking forward to reading her memoir.

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