January 14, 2013

"The Women"

By William Trevor
~7600 words

The appearance of two mysterious women in an adolescent girl's life raises unsettling questions about her past.

The story follows the main character, Cecilia Normanton, as she grows up in London in the "listless nineteen-eighties." The initial focus is on Cecilia's relationship with her father, described as a melancholy soul who was left irreparably wounded when his wife, of whom Cecilia has no recollection, left him for another man. When the father sends Cecilia away to boarding school at age fourteen, two women, later identified as Miss Cotell and Miss Keble, begin appearing at seemingly random moments—a hockey game, a trip to the post office, a roll call—and the story veers into their perspective on several occasions. Eventually Miss Keble tells Cecilia that Miss Cotell is her mother. Startled by the revelation, Cecilia at first attempts to dismiss it; when that proves impossible she tries, to no avail, to coax her father into confirming it.

I liked the premise of this story but found the execution lacking. The narrative is ultimately about the relationship between Cecilia and her father and how it is tested by the two women and their shocking revelation. The long digressions into Cotell's and Keble's perspectives prove unnecessary and often confusing, cluttered with details intended to provide motivation and backstory that only end up bleeding the main story arc of tension. There is a single short section told from father's point of view, in which he watches Cecilia perform in a play, that also seems superfluous. (As an experiment, I reread the story by skipping over the sections told outside Cecilia's perspective and found it much improved.)

While "The Women" is based on an intriguing premise and graced with beautiful diction, it is marred by unjustified perspective shifts and cluttered storytelling.


Reader poll: I found "The Women" to be ___.

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