This book made me uncomfortable. The feeling was very much the same as the first few times I wandered into adult reading from children's literature: that if something bad was going to happen (and it probably was), I was going to hear about it.
Look closely at the picture on the cover. Graceful acrobat, all in white, right? But look at her face. Very realistically, the forces of gravity have distorted her features into a grotesque, partly comic, partly tragic mask. Whoever chose this cover was a genius at matching the visual with the literary. That's pretty much how this book reads.
Not to say Porter isn't a good writer. She is. At first I was a bit bored, because all the short stories seemed pretty much alike. Porter is a master of the interior monologue and I believe I've read a few of these before in English class. "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" is one of the better ones, telling in a rambling, looping, but ultimately coherent fashion the deathbed memories, thoughts, and perceptions of an old woman.
Once I hit the longer stories, I was hooked. Even though I constantly felt ill at ease (anticipating with a cringe the bad thing that was probably going to happen), these are compelling, insightful stories filled with interesting, complex characters. They are a little confusing in places, because names tend to repeat. Sometimes characters in different stories bear the same name, but one can't be sure whether they are meant to be the same person, or a different person who happens to have the same name. Sometimes it's clearly only the names that repeat (the "wolfish, ungracious" dog Kuno in one story has the same name as the narrator's human best friend in another story), but even that's a bit distracting ("Wait, I thought Kuno was a dog!"). Whether the similarities are intentional is another question.
Porter's theme is often misunderstanding or lack of understanding, frequently involving children trying to comprehend the events and subtleties of adult concerns. She captures the awkward, foot-in-each-world feeling of adolescence very well, and she can create a feeling or an impression with a wonderful economy of words. She's a bit too fond of the comma splice (yes, I know, picky, picky), but it suits her tone and rapid diction very well.
Despite the fact that the tension of waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop prevented me from "enjoying" this book, I'm glad I read it.
Excerpt from "Old Mortality":
Eva, shy and chinless, straining her upper lip over two enormous teeth, would sit in corners watching her mother. She looked hungry, her eyes were strained and tired. She wore her mother's old clothes, made over, and taught Latin in a Female Seminary. She believed in votes for women, and had traveled about, making speeches. When her mother was not present, Eva bloomed out a little, danced prettily, smiled, showing all her teeth, and was like a dry little plant set out in a gentle rain. Molly was merry about her ugly duckling. "It's lucky for me my daughter is an old maid. She's not so apt," said Molly naughtily, "to make a grandmother of me." Eva would blush as if she had been slapped.