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The Reading Life: The girls in their summer dresses

April 1, 2011 | 10:51 am


This post is part of the occasional series The Reading Life by book critic David L. Ulin.

When the weather turned Thursday and, 2 1/2 months early, summer seemed to settle on Los Angeles, I began to think of Irwin Shaw. Not because Shaw wrote much about Southern California -- although he did do some work here -- but because one of his early stories, "The Girls in Their Summer Dresses" felt momentarily apropos.

The connection, I'll admit, is a bit tenuous, because "The Girls in Their Summer Dresses" is not about summer -- taking place, as it does, in November -- although it does involve weather that is unseasonably warm. Rather, it is about Michael Loomis, a husband with a wandering eye who looks over every woman on Manhattan's lower Fifth Avenue as he and his wife Frances take a Sunday morning stroll.

Originally published in the New Yorker on Feb. 4, 1939, the story has had a long life, probably because it is so taut and well-constructed: barely 3,000 words, mostly dialogue, taking place within the span of an hour or so. Its genius lies in its indirection, the way Shaw manages to withhold, until almost the very end, just exactly what's at stake.

"Someday," Frances weeps, verbalizing her fears, "you're going to make a move ..." Then, in five abbreviated paragraphs, Shaw exposes the marriage's tarnished heart:

Michael didn't say anything. He sat watching the bartender slowly peel a lemon.

"Aren't you?" Frances asked harshly. "Come on, tell me. Talk. Aren't you?"

"Maybe," Michael said. He moved his chair back again. "How the hell do I know?"

"You know," Frances persisted. "Don't you know?"

"Yes," Michael said after a while. "I know."

It's a brutal moment, all the more so for being utterly timeless, the kind of conversation we might imagine overhearing to this day.

In the seven decades since it first appeared, "The Girls in Their Summer Dresses" has gone through a number of incarnations. It was adapted for the PBS series "Great Performances" in 1981 with Jeff Bridges and Carol Kane; more recently, the band Airborne Toxic Event took the title (and at least some of the narrative and emotional dynamics) for a song

But most enduring is Shaw's small, grim classic, a story so simple and subtle that it feels like life. Michael and Frances might be any of us, and the easy, insinuating way their comfortable back-and-forth devolves into something more elemental resonates with the force of argument, of people not so much completing as complicating each other -- no matter what the weather or the time of year.

-- David L. Ulin

Photo: Sisters Annah and Kristen Hill keep cool Thursday, an unseasonably warm day, at the Huntington Library and Gardens. Credit: Don Bartletti /Los Angeles Times