Elizabeth Tallent’s new story collection, Mendocino Fire, deserves the praise it’s received in reviews. The stories, all set along the northern California coast where she lives, are imaginative, innovative and compelling explorations into the human condition.
As it’s her first book of fiction in more than twenty years, I dove into her stories with glee and found a happy surprise in “Eros 101.” Opening with a faculty dinner, we learn that:
“The evening’s covert (and mistaken: you’ll see) premise is that the newly hired Woolf scholar will, from her angelic professional height and as homage to VW, scheme to advance all female futures….”
Written in an essay question format, the responses disclose the encounter of said Woolf scholar, Clio Mirsak, with tenure-seeking junior faculty member Nadia, whom she refers to as “the Beloved.” The attraction is immediate and consuming but not reciprocated. The story, with its challenging construction, is clever, funny and touching. Woolf pops in and out of the narrative both directly and covertly.
A phrase from Woolf: “’Reality’ … beside which nothing matters.” (Help—can someone tell me the source of this quote?)
Unwelcome thoughts of her mother interject themselves into Clio’s fantasy: “The memory stamps out several little wildfires of desire … Just try thinking back through this woman.”
In a recent interview Tallent cites Woolf as one of her influences and among the novelists she teaches in her fiction writing classes at Stanford, so it’s no surprise that she would evoke Woolf for her feminist scholar protagonist. It was a great addition (number 86) to my ongoing list of Woolf sightings in fiction and a marvelous story collection from start to finish.