Ellen Gilchrist: In the Land of Dreamy Dreams (1981)

In the Land of Dreamy Dreams

In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, Ellen Gilchrist’s acclaimed 1981 debut collection of short stories, introduced readers to a remarkable Southern voice which has sustained its power and influence through her more than 20 subsequent books. Gilchrist has a distinctive ear for language, and a deep understanding of her flawed, sometimes tragic characters. These fourteen stories, divided into three sections — There’s a Garden of Eden, Things Like the Truth, and Perils of the Nile — are about mostly young, upper-class Southern women who are bored with the Junior League and having babies, and chafe against the restrictions of their sheltered lives. Talented and bright, but living in the shadow of men — their husbands and fathers — they resort to outrageous actions in pursuit of freer lives and uncompromised love, despite the consequences. This collection first introduced readers to some of Gilchrist’s most beloved characters, such as Rhoda Manning and Nora Jane Whittington

I came across Ellen Gilchrist by chance. I was looking for books set in New Orleans and saw one of her short stories Rich in an anthology. I wasn’t familiar with her and looked her up and finally ordered a used copy of her first collection In the Land of Dreamy Dreams. It’s very rare that I read a whole short story collection in a few days, but I did in this case. There was a unity of setting, mood and atmosphere, and even one returning character that it read almost like a novel in stories.

Most of the stories are set in New Orleans, only a few take place in other places. The first or third person narrators are all women. Some are still small girls, many are teenagers, a few are grownups and some are elderly. About 50% of the stories are set in the 40s, the others in the 70s.

Hope and failure, perversion and innocence are some of the themes. The descriptions are rich and lush, the tone ranges from lyrical and  dreamy to bitter and sarcastic. Some of the stories have the atmosphere of a humid, stuffed boudoir, others exude an air of rich elegance.

In a few sentences Gilchrist can capture a whole life, including its tragedy and beauty. I liked the beautiful, hopeful stories, in which the protagonists were heading for a life full of intense and sensuous moments best. But I can’t deny that the more cruel stories like “Rich” – in which people get richer and richer and finally end in tragedy – or the stories Suicides and Indignities were powerful and even made me gasp.

To give you a taste – this is the beginning of Indignities

Last night my mother took off her clothes in front of twenty-six invited guests in the King’s Room at Antoine’s. She took off her Calvin Klein evening jacket and her beige silk wrap-around blouse and her custom-made  brassiere and walked around the table letting everyone look at the place where her breasts used to be.

She had them removed without saying a word to anyone. I’m surprised she told my father. I’m surprised she invited him to the party. He ever would have noticed. He hasn’t touched her in years except to hand her a cheque or a paper to sign.

My favourite stories were There’s a Garden of Eden in which a fortysomething woman and her young lover take a boat and navigate the flooded streets of New Orleans to get to her mother, 1944 in which a young girl meets a glamorous war widow who shows her to make the most of live. I also loved Traveler in which a plain girl travels to her beautiful cousin in the South. The cousin has just lost her mother who’s left her wardrobes and wardrobes full of expensive clothes, underwear, perfumes and make-up. The plain girl reinvents herself on this vacation and doesn’t want to return home. Summer, an Elegy is a story with a languorous mood, but it made me feel uncomfortable as it describes the love affair of two eight year-olds. It contains one of my favourite passages.

The afternoon went on for a log time, and the small bed was surrounded by yellow light and the room filled with the smell of mussels.

Long afterward, as she lay in a cool bed in Acapulco, waiting for her third husband to claim her as his bride, Matille would remember that light and how, later that afternoon, the wind picked up and could be heard for miles away, moving toward Issaquena County with its lines of distant thunder, and how the cottonwood leaves outside the window had beat upon the house all night with their exotic crackling.

I haven’t read anyone quite like Ellen Gilchrist but she still reminded me of a few authors. Tennesse Williams came to mind – A Streetcar Named Desire as much as The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone – because of the setting and some of the older characters. But she also reminded me of Julie Orringer whose intricately woven sentences and lush descriptions are similar and there’s some of Yoko Ogawa’s cruelty in this collection as well. Funny enough Ogawa’s last short story collection has the English title Revenge. One of Gilchrist’s best stories is called Revenge as well. Coincidence? Who knows.

If you like rish, complex short stories, full of allusions and sensual descriptions, sometimes mean, sometimes dreamy – then do yourself a favour and get a copy of this wonderful book.

20 thoughts on “Ellen Gilchrist: In the Land of Dreamy Dreams (1981)

  1. When I saw the post, I was going to ask if this is your first Gilchrist but I see that it is. Over the years, in various stories, she created a character named Rhoda and now those stories are released in a Rhoda Stories collection. Gilchrist is a favourite of mine, and if you like her, you’d also love Laurie Colwin. She died young and didn’t leave a great body of work behind unfortunately, but her fiction is amazing.

    • Thanks so much. Anyone writing only a bit like Gilchrist will get my interest.
      I’d never heard of before finding her in that anthology. Yes Rhoda is amajor character. I saw the book you mention and I’m likely to get it.
      She’s stunning. I’m not surprised she’s a favourite of yours.

  2. I haven’t read Ellen Gilchrist in a long time but I loved her short stories and somewhere in my house I have most of her books. Nobody else writes quite like her and I loved the way characters would re-appear in later stories.

    I’ve read Laurie Colwin’s cookery books, which are more like memoirs than collections of recipes but haven’t come across her prose.

  3. I have always meant to read Ellen Gilchrist. When I worked in a bookstore the owner always raved about her work and considering how much I love short stories I suspect I would like this very much. I like interlinked stories, too, and it sounds as though they do at least have a few underlying connections. Was the same character in all the stories? It’s funny how you look for (and I do this a lot) a book with a particular setting and then make a real find author-wise. I think I own something by her–not sure which book-I think she has written a lot. Will have to look this one up now!

    • I’m sure you’d love this. There’s a similarity but they are still so different, the writing is stellar and the atmopshere is lovely.
      This collection has different charcaters but Rhoda returns several times and it contains the first Nora Jane story. There is a collection with the title Rhoda and one Nora Jane in which all their stories are collected. I’m sure they are very good but in a way I’m glad I read this, as it’s her first and an original collection. I hope you get to read this. I’d be very interested to hear what you think.

  4. I remember stumbling upon her work as well. It was a colleciton on the New Books shelf at the library and I loved it. But, since then, I haven’t followed up. Your post reminds me that I should spend more time following-up and not always leaping to the “next” new book. Though, goodness, it’s hard to find time for them all, isn’t it. I’ll be nudgling Gilchrist up the TBR list now: thanks!

    • You’re very welcome. I’m like that as well- I hop from one author to the next. Time’s certainly a factor. In thi case I think it’s worth following up.
      I’m looking forward to see which book you’ll discover.

  5. Great commentary on this one Caroline.

    Humid, stuffed boudoir combined with rich elegance do make me think of New Orleans. It is such a distinctive, almost mystical place and it seems like the charm and darkness of the city is infused into these works.

    • Thanks, carole. I know you don’t like reading short stories so much but I can guarantee you, you’d like these. I hope you’ll get in the mood some day. :)

  6. Beautiful review, Caroline! I love everything about the book starting from the title – how can one resist a book called ‘In the Land of Dreamy Dreams’ :) Glad to know that you liked both the happy and sad stories in the book. The first passage of ‘Indignities’ definitely grabs the reader by the collar, making her / him want to find out what happens next. That scene from ‘There’s a Garden of Eden’ is quite uncanny – I didn’t know that New Orleans had a history of floods and people navigating streets with boats. It must be pretty scary when there is a heavy rain or a storm.

    Thanks for introducing me to this new-to-me author, Caroline. This book looks fantastic.

    • Thanks, Vishy. I thought exactly the same – a book with a tile like this must be good and I was right. The title captures the mood of most stories incredibly well.
      It seesm that New Orleans has a history of floods. i didn’t know that either.
      She has many poingnant intro paragraphs like that. Sometimes the story starts as an idyllc tale and then veers into the tragic. I’ve never read anything like her. I hope you’ll get to read her some day. I have a feeling you’d like her.

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