The Good Old Days That Never Were: Martha Engber on Alice Fulton’s The Nightingales of Troy

Alice Fulton, The Nightingales of Troy, WW Norton

One can almost taste dust when reading Alice Fulton’s The Nightingales of Troy. The book of interrelated short stories is not about the Dust Bowl, a dusty planet in a sci-fi tale, or a dessert. Rather, the dust is of the type kids find in their grandmother’s attic. Not just any attic, either, but the attic of peeling two-story clapboard houses like those found in old upstate New York towns along the Hudson River.

The stories carry readers through a century of women in a family settled in the Troy area where Fulton grew up. The book begins with Mamie Flynn Garrahan, who in 1908 milks the cows even though she’s in heavy labor preceding a birth she may have to endure by herself.

The book then follows the lives of Annie’s daughters to a granddaughter grieved by her the distortions of her dreams and her mother’s impending death. All the stories have about them the feel of old, brittle wallpaper and banisters polished to a sheen through years of hands sliding along the wood. The theme throughout reflects a sense of nostalgia, not for the good old days, but rather the real old days. The heartaches of loves lost, the killing silence of propriety, the ignorance of mental illness.

One by one, the characters experience joy that’s within their grasp, only to see happiness slip away into a life of making due. There’s Charlotte Garrahan, who gladly treats her fiancé to sweet suppers from the Sweet Shoppe where she works, only to discover the splintering distance between her family of modest farm roots and his moneyed Connecticut clan. Then there’s Annie Garrahan, who’s lifted to Florence Nightingale status largely based on an innocent, yet potent optimism, only to fall, forever crippled, when she fails to rescue a small boy.

The book is reminiscent of Alice Munro’s View From Castle Rock, a collection of interrelated short stories about an extended family that travels from Scotland to settle in Canada where, through the decades, the family continues to evolve according to the changing culture and landscape.

Unlike Munro’s effort, however, Fulton’s book, through the depiction of times past, begs an odd comparison between the standard literary treatment she uses and new emerging forms of literature. Highly-detailed, subtle and focused in the minute inner workings of characters, Fulton’s style in this endeavor gives the impression this type of storytelling has surpassed its time; that though still the bedrock of highly-respected literary journals, riskier and more innovative writing beckons elsewhere.

3 responses to “The Good Old Days That Never Were: Martha Engber on Alice Fulton’s The Nightingales of Troy

  1. I apologize for the tardy response. I just saw the review of my review on Jan. 10 and only yesterday had the opportunity to recheck Alice Fulton’s novel regarding the cow.

    Kate is correct that in the first story, Happy Dust, Mamie Garrahan, who lives on a farm in rural New York around the turn of the century, does not milk the cows while in heavy labor. Rather, she waters and unharnesses the horses.

    While both would do an excellent job of showing Mamie’s heartiness in a time and place where women didn’t whine about their lot, even when their lives were on the line, I do agree that my depiction of the wrong task is completely unacceptable.

    My sincere apologies to the author.

  2. I agree with Kate, this obtuse review does a disservice to the readers of gentlyread. The emphasis on dustiness couldn’t be more misleading. The “dust” of the brilliant “Happy Dust” isn’t the dust of “grandmother’s attic,” it’s heroin — how could Engber miss THAT. And how could Engber miss the really funny stories in this book, like the hilarious “The Real Eleanor Rigby,” which takes place in the 1960s or “If It’s Not Too Much to Ask,” in the 1980s — no dusty attics or peeling wallpaper there (or anywhere else in the book)! What I love about THE NIGHTINGALES OF TROY is that it is so wide ranging and that each story so skillfully evokes the language and texture of its decade. I can’t think of a single story collection — ever — that has done this in the way Fulton has. If that isn’t innovative writing, I don’t know what is! I didn’t get any “sense of nostalgia” from this book; careful historical details aren’t nostalgia! I’m not quite sure what Engber means by her sloppy phrase “this type of storytelling has surpassed its time.” These are beautifully written, solidly crafted, moving, and funny stories that are all the more striking for their interconnectedness. Readers of gentlyread would be better served by hopping over to L magazine for Thea Brown’s intelligent take on this wonderful book.

  3. This review is so badly written that I wouldn’t believe it even if I hadn’t read Fulton’s collection. Martha Engber doesn’t say a word about the beauty of the writing — or the humor that pervades so many stories. This is a witty book — really funny, at times, and tragic at times, too. Engber’s carelessness is evident in her summary of the first story. She says, “The book begins with Mamie Flynn Garrahan, who in 1908 milks the cows even though she’s in heavy labor.” There aren’t any cows in that story (I just checked), and the character doesn’t milk any. Fulton at times reminds me of Flannery O’Connor or Lorrie Moore — but she’s ultimately unlike anyone but herself. Greg Schutz wrote a smart, fairminded review in The Fiction Writers Review. Here’s an excerpt and a link:

    “The Nightingales of Troy does not have the feel of a fiction debut; it benefits from Fulton’s practiced eye for detail and motion–a woman in a waiting room wears “hair scrunchies like little clown ruffs on her wrists” and punctuates a comment about her childhood in an orphanage by snapping “one of her fluffy bright handcuffs”–and also her ability to move between sentences and paragraphs of prose the way a poet might move between lines and stanzas, with a lyrical lightness.

    What sets The Nightingales of Troy apart from so many other precocious debut collections is Fulton’s knack for the ineffable, for creating stories that are more than the sum of their intricately assembled parts. Her best stories not only exhibit her architectural prowess, they also remind the reader of the near-magical capaciousness of the story form. “The Real Eleanor Rigby,” for example, combines a high-school girl with interests in Catholic mysticism, Herman Melville, and the Beatles; her overbearing mother; an encounter with the Fab Four themselves; and a possible tab of acid, accidentally ingested–and does so in a way that illuminates, by the story’s end, a portion of the mysterious depths of the parent-child bond.

    It’s this striving after mysteries that lends the collection its unusual power. Though many of these stories are the products of a great deal of historical research, Fulton is interested in getting at things far more slippery than facts: the bequeathings of mothers to daughters, of one generation to the next, of our memories to our hopes. The book’s multigenerational sweep brings with it a keen awareness of the fragility of the body–of mortality–and Fulton’s women are all quietly eloquent on the subject of their disappointments. Yet The Nightingales of Troy is also a chronicle of resilience. Through it all–from Mamie’s dangerous pregnancy in “Happy Dust” to the close of the twentieth century and the collection’s bittersweet and deeply satisfying final lines–a residue of hope, that other happy dust, remains.” ~Greg Schutz, The Fiction Writers Review