Richard Ford: ‘Women with Men’

Let’s start by acknowledging that Richard Ford is like the Clint Eastwood of writing. They even look a bit alike, no? Richard Ford is the bomb, and I have no beef with him. But (you knew there was a but coming), I wasn’t quite as enamored with his book of novellas, Women with Men as I was with, say, his blockbuster Rock Springs or The Sportswriter. But I don’t think this speaks to any shortcomings in this collection. I think it speaks to his power as a novelist.

In any case, two of the three novellas are about American men in Paris. I’m slightly obsessed with going to Paris, so give me a story set in the City of Lights and I’m in. These were not stories of love and beauty, however. These are stories about failed marriages, failed affairs even, and the feeling of being an outsider in another country. The two stories set in Paris have a great deal in common. One is about a man who works for a fancy paper company and is there to meet with a French publisher that is a client and the other is a professor/writer having his first book translated to French. There’s a bit of overlap. One character is cheating on his wife with a French woman who works at the publishing company he’s visiting. The other is not-yet-divorced and visiting with his girlfriend, making a holiday of meeting with his translator. Disturbing and inevitable events happen at the end of both stories. I won’t tell you what, but you’ll know it’s coming.

The first story, “The Womanizer” had a very Martin Amis feel to it. In fact, the protagonist’s name is Martin Austin—coincidence? I imagine Amis’s Money was in some way an influence. The protagonist of “The Womanizer” is making a mess of his life, and is generally not a very good person, nor does he really know what he wants. What Richard Ford does in these stories is to take a lot of time to transgress. He lets his characters get way inside their heads and tell us everything they’re thinking. Kind of like I do sometimes in this column. Is this abnormal? Not for Ford, but for a short story/novella, I think it is. We’re used to over-sharing in novels, but stories have to keep things moving, and sometimes that means you get less head-time.

The middle story, “Jealous” is also from the American male perspective, but this time it’s a seventeen-year-old male, and he’s in America. Though the theme of sense of place is still very present. The narrator has moved to a small working farm with his father, and is on his way to visit his mother in Seattle for Thanksgiving. Ultimately, he needs to decide where he wants to live, but an incident occurs while he’s waiting for the train. If it sounds like there’s a pattern here, you’re right. An upsetting event takes place in each novella that gives the narrator course for reflection. Reflect they do, and it’s your job at the end to figure out what it all means. I’ll let you know when I figure it all out.

What’s your favorite Richard Ford book?

Gigglers: I’m not going to seek out the newest hardcovers and tell you whether or not to buy them. And while not the Sunday Review, this Sunday blog will explore my brilliant and fascinating thoughts about books. Please use the comments section to share your own thoughts on this book, or whatever you’re reading.

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