Women in Their Beds — Gina Berriault
Her admirers include Richard Ford, Grace Paley and Robert Stone, but American fiction writer Gina Berriault may be one of most revered writers you’ve never heard of. Cynthia Ozick described Berriault as the quintessential writer’s writer—the recipient of professional admiration and “dim public recognition.” Though I’d say she’s a writer for anyone who loves precisely crafted, beautiful prose.
Berriault, who died in 1999 at the age of seventy-three, wrote prolifically. The author of four novels and three stories collections, she also taught at the University of Iowa and San Francisco State. Her last book, the consummate collection Women in Their Beds: New and Selected Stories (Counterpoint Press, 1996), contains many of her best known short works, including “The Stone Boy” (adapted to film in 1984 starring Robert Duvall). Of the collection the New York Times said, “In these 35 stories, one struggles to find a sentence that is anything less than jewel-box perfect.” My favorite, “Who Is It Can Tell Me Who I Am?” features Alberto Perrera, the effete librarian facing a financially precarious retirement. There are hallmarks to a Berriault story—she lived and worked in and around San Francisco, and the City is often present in her stories, a character in itself with its windblown streets, beaches and cypress along the cliffs. But more than that, Berriault was always an advocate for the outsider, and her characters are often caught between conventional society and existential crisis—such as the controlled librarian Perrera, whose life among books comes into question with the appearance of a homeless and tubercular young man who wants to make the library his home. Berriault writes the outcast and misunderstood—though never sentimentally—along with the tragic desires of the more fortunate.
Among her many awards, Berriault was a recipient of the 1997 Rea Award for the Short Story and was praised by jurors Ozick, Tobias Wolff and Andre Dubus. Though Berriault’s quiet collection were not immediately discovered—Gary Amdahl notes the book went unreviewed for months—but we can be glad now that it was.