Book Review: The Closed Door by Dorothy Whipple

 
The Closed Door and Other Stories
Dorothy Whipple

I know I tend to use superlatives when talking about Dorothy Whipple and that doing so too frequently or too effusively can have the opposite of the intended effect. I mention this because I am slightly troubled that all of my past praise of Whipple’s novels makes it all the harder to try and convey to you just how brilliant her short fiction is. In fact, although I truly loved The Priory and High Wages, I never thought them brilliant. They are well written, compelling, and highly enjoyable, but they also have some elements that make the plots a little to neat and tidy. But when it comes to the short story, Whipple’s plotting deficienices, sometimes evident in longer formats, disappear.

I tend not to like short stories because they often leave me scratching my head wondering what exactly happened. They either tend to feel too much like fragments–a slice of life picked out of time–or they just leave too many loose ends and unanswered questions, and I feel like I am not clever enough to understand what I am supposed to feel. But Whipple writes the kind of stories that are quick to draw one in and they have perfect little plot arcs that can be full of twists, but resolve in a way that lets literal-minded me feel satisfied that I “got it”. Of course I realize that this preference for plot resolution is probably something that sets me (and Whipple) apart from the more high minded literati.

My challenges writing plot summaries rises to crisis levels when trying to describe short stories. And these are the kind of stories that one really wants to talk about. But the spoiler alerts alone would take up half the word count so I am going to stick to generalities. Despite it being a joy to read, this collection is not a cozy romp through 1930s and 40s England. These stories deal with abuse neglect, deception, adultery and other types of unpleasantness. Never too desolate (this isn’t Precious after all), but some pack a real emotional wallop. Two of the stories are in a dead heat for my favorite: “The Handbag” for its O. Henry-like plot and “Youth” for its exhilarating resolution that made me want to clap and cry and just plain rejoice that Anne did the right thing. Most of the stories offer at least a glimmer of hope if not outright happiness for the protagonists, but a few of them are just plain tragic. The story “Wednesday” is particularly so.

Many thanks to Verity and Claire who sent this book to me as a prize for Persephone Reading Week. Because they are short stories, I probably would not have gotten around to them until I reard everything else by Whipple. And that would be a mistake.

  

10 thoughts on “Book Review: The Closed Door by Dorothy Whipple

  1. Ash July 28, 2010 / 1:43 pm

    I have never heard of Dorothy Whipple (it seems like I always find out about new authors when I come to your blog!) but I'm trying to read more short fiction so maybe I'll have to try her out.

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  2. mattviews July 28, 2010 / 7:53 pm

    Dorothy Whipple is on my author list to explore. Interesting you and a couple bloggers whom I follow (daily) mention short stories. I am not huge fan of short stories because they are over too soon. I need some time to ponder and make sense of what has happened in a short story before taking the leap into the next one.

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  3. Mystica July 29, 2010 / 4:04 am

    I have tried every avenue possible both in the library in Melbourne and in second hand bookshops in Sri Lanka to get Whipple and failed. Will just have to try looking more.

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  4. Hannah Stoneham July 29, 2010 / 5:38 am

    Persephone are good at finding really good short stories – as they did with Mollie Panter Downes –

    I like the end paper and this does sound like a good collection

    thanks for sharing!

    Hannah

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  5. bookssnob July 29, 2010 / 6:25 am

    Oh goodness, I LOVED this collection. DW condensed is, as you say, sometimes even better and more satisfying than reading a longer novel. Those stories mesmerised me. I must re-read them!

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  6. savidgereads July 29, 2010 / 7:22 am

    I struggle with short stories Thomas so this sounds like a brilliant collection. I was also saying on Booksnob yesterday that I have yet to try Whipple so maybe this is just the thing!

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  7. JoAnn July 29, 2010 / 8:42 am

    If these stories are anything like “A Lovely Time”, which appeared earlier this year in the Persephone Bianually, I'm not surprised you loved them! Whipple's books are surprisingly difficult to find (even checked 3 stores in NYC last weekend). The local B&N has Someone at a Distance, but I'll need to go straight to Persephone for more, I'm afraid…

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  8. Darlene July 29, 2010 / 10:43 am

    This collection of short stories is the only Whipple I haven't purchased from Persephone yet. I'm actually really sad at the thought of having gone through everything by her so I'm rationing out the titles. You're not helping things, Thomas!

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  9. Tiffany Norris July 30, 2010 / 3:17 pm

    I love your definition of a good short story–“perfect little plot arcs that can be full of twists, but resolve in a way that lets [you] feel satisfied.” Precisely!

    Like

  10. Ti July 30, 2010 / 5:09 pm

    The “slice of life” comment is so true. I often feel the same way about short fiction but once in a great while I come across some fantastic stuff and then of course I expect all short fiction to be as wonderful.

    Like

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