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"Youth and the Bright Medusa" by Willa Cather

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Mix a liberal dose of Opera with a pinch of Art. Add a dollop of Wall Street and season with a few wasted lives. This combination comes close to Willa Cather's recipe for her story anthology, Youth and the Bright Medusa.

If one can endure the frustration engendered by Willa Cather's method of putting together a story, one will appreciate her fascinating characters and her poetic use of American English.

Whence the frustration? Cather often launches several story lines into a single story. Some she resolves satisfactorily; some unsatisfactorily, and some she doesn't resolve at all. Sometimes, as in "The Gold Slipper," the denouement relates only vaguely to the initial story line. I would really like to know what effect the slipper had on the giver and more details about why the receiver kept this item.

The plots in most of the stories have more in common with a Picasso painting than the great American novel. I've read enough short stories to realize that authors frequently use this genre to break a few rules. However, several of the stories left me hanging uncomfortably, and the smile level of the story was not sufficient to incline me to forgive.

In "Paul's Case," the denouement was sufficiently depressing to put Cather in a league with Edith Wharton and Emily Brontë. If you liked The House of Mirth and Wuthering Heights you may enjoy "Paul's Case". Then again, the characters in the Wharton and Brontë novels have much more depth to them than Paul. His story was reasonably well constructed but pointless.

The longest and by far the best story was "The Diamond Mine". Told in a straightforward manner by one of the characters, it describes an opera singer Cressida Garnet, a sympathetic character whose goal in life appeared to be making other people happy even when none were inclined to return the favor.

"The Sculptor's Funeral" was intriguing because of the way Cather unfolded the story. The Sculptor is dead. A body arrives on a train to a small town out west from New York. The funeral attendees write the story as they express viewpoints regarding the man's life choices, including his profession. Almost as an after thought, however, Ms. Cather wipes out the story's one truly sympathetic character in an almost unrelated sub-plot.

Willa Cather is a very talented writer; one who does not mind breaking the rules to further her craft. Youth and the Bright Medusa is a good introduction to her storytelling abilities and methods. Where did she get the title of the anthology? I never did figure that out.


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