5 December, 2022

The Books That Affected Us the Most

The Birthday Party by Gina Berriault
Gina Berriault
Gina Berriault

I first read Berriault’s stunning story in her lauded 1996 collection,

Women in Their Beds. It was my introduction to her work, and numerous re-readings have not lessened the dizzying heartbreak of the story’s first lines:

The boy, wakened by his mother’s heels as she went past his door, ran out into the hallway. She turned when he called to her. She had her coat on: her face was without make-up,

and pale.
“Where are you going? he cried.
“Get back in bed,” she called back. “You’re old enough to be left alone.”
“You get back!” he shouted.
She went through the living room, her head down.
“It’s very late,” he pleaded, “I’m already in bed.”
“When you wake up I’ll be back already,” she said. “Call Grandma if I’m not. If I’m not, then I’m never.”

“The Birthday Party” recounts a young woman’s failed love affair as seen by her seven-year-old son. It also portrays with razor precision the experience of love and abandonment—from both a child’s and an adult’s point of view.

Berriault’s lines are reminiscent of those in the opening scene of Flannery O’Connor’s classic story ”The River,” and in Chekhov’s portrayal of Gurov in “The Lady with the Dog.” Berriault kept a picture of Chekhov on her bookshelf and named the Russians — Chekov, Gogol, Tolstoy, Turgenev — as writers who held her literary inheritance. Her eye is similarly stark, as is her attention to setting, surface, and character. “The Birthday Party” is especially, and gorgeously, austere. Each time I read it, I inhabit the odd, anxious child and the desperate mother whose emotions move between frenzy and numbness. I endure the mother’s ridicule (“Oh, the champion anxiety hound,” she admonishes); and expect, like the boy does, to discover abandonment in even the most minor transgressions. “The Birthday Party” reminds us of a fact we’re loathe to think on: that childhood is often far from innocent.

—Lauren Alwan

Author

  • TS Tate

    Tee received a Master of Arts in English in 2008 from Southeastern Louisiana University. She has studied under Edgar nominee Tim Gautreaux, Booksense Pick novelist Bev Marshall and Clarion West graduate and World Fantasy nominee, Cat Rambo. She has more than ten years of documentation and editing experience and is currently the Editor-in-Chief at LitStack.com.   She has spent the past nine years in the corporate environment as a Technical Editor and has previously edited for Christine Rose, Phoebe North, Heather McCorkle, Laura Pauling, Anne Riley, Christine Fonseca and UF writer Carolyn Crane. With Heather McCorkle, Tee co-founded the #WritersRoad chat on Twitter.  In addition, she is working on several creative projects, including her second novel and various short stories. Her flash fiction, "Street Noises," was included in the Pill Hill Press anthology "Daily Frights 2012: 366 Days of Dark Flash Fiction (Leap Year Edition)" and her short "Til Hunt Be Done," was included in the Winter Wonders anthology from Compass Press.  A diehard New Orleans Saints fan, Tee lives with her family in Southeast Louisiana.