Cover image for Interesting women : stories
Interesting women : stories
Lee, Andrea, 1953-
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First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Random House, [2002]

Physical Description:
222 pages ; 25 cm
The birthday present -- Full moon over Milan -- Brothers and sisters around the world -- Anthropology -- Un petit d'un petit -- Dancing with Josefina -- The golden chariot -- Interesting women -- The visit -- About fog and cappuccino -- The pulpit -- Sicily -- Winter barley.
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American brio confronts European sophistication--and diverse cultures collide with surprising results--in brilliant, sometimes outrageous stories of seduction and self-discovery by acclaimed New Yorker writer Andrea Lee. In vivid prose shot through with mordant irony, Lee takes us into the hearts and minds of a number of extraordinary women--intelligent, seductive, self-possessed--who, with wit and style, must grapple with questions of identity in a shrinking world where everyone is, in some way, a foreigner. In "The Birthday Present," a loyal and conventional American wife explores the wilder shores of marital devotion by giving her Italian husband a costly present: a night with a high-class Milanese call girl. "Winter Barley" is the account, alternately lyrical and perverse, of the brief love affair in Scotland between an elderly European prince and a thoroughly modern New England beauty half his age. And in the collection's title story, "Interesting Women," an American woman on vacation in Thailand reflects with mocking detachment on the confessional relationships that spring up between women ("another day, another soul laid bare"), before falling into one herself, which culminates in a hilarious and absurd odyssey through the jungle. Lee's beautifully crafted stories, reminiscent of Colette's, offer the reader a rare combination: sensual evocation of the moment, and profound insight into the underlying struggles--of gender, race, and class--that shape relationships worldwide.

Author Notes

Andrea Lee lives with her husband and two children in Torino, Italy.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Lee is intrigued by women at loose ends, women who find each other of heightened, even erotic interest, and cultural collisions within marriages between American women and European men, especially black women and white men. Vacations are a favorite setting for the author of the acclaimed Russian Journal (1981) and the novel Sarah Phillips (1984); away from home, Lee's women characters, unmoored and surrounded by strangers, are induced either to protect their privacy vehemently or to take chances. The title story is set at an upscale Thai hotel, where two seemingly simpatico female travelers are alternately attracted to and repulsed by each other. In the ravishingly beautiful "Brothers and Sisters around the World," an African American woman visiting Madagascar with her white French Italian husband intuits how to command the respect of the local women. But Lee's shrewd yet tenderhearted protagonists even feel like outsiders at home, and whatever the setting, each droll, masterfully crafted, electrifyingly perceptive, and wryly cosmopolitan and epicurean story deftly decodes the tricky dynamics of sexual, racial, and cultural trespass. Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

Although Lee has published one novel (Sarah Phillips) and one book of reportage (Russian Journal), she is best known for her frequently anthologized short stories infused with international glamour and a particular brand of American world-weariness. The 13 here are thematically unified, focusing on outsiders doubly estranged and often struggling to factor a sexual power play into the equation. The unnamed narrator of "Brothers and Sisters Around the World" is vacationing in the Caribbean with her young son and her Franco-Roman husband, who adores the tropics and assumes she does, too. "He doesn't seem to see that what gives strength to the spine of an American black woman... is a steely Protestant core... that in its absolutism is curiously cold and Nordic." Another American wife whose Milanese husband assumes she is traditional gives him a birthday present of an evening with two elegant and very young fancy women. The book takes its title from the musings of a woman vacationing in Thailand while her husband investigates mines in China. "Interesting women are we ever going to be free of them? I meet them everywhere these days, now that there is no longer such a thing as an interesting man." Reading Lee, you know you're in the presence of an author fully able to, as another narrator says, "picture an endless mazurka of former wives, husbands, lovers, children, and assorted hangers-on, not excepting au pairs, cleaning women and pets." The stories are full of tension sexual, material, racial. If they are less than perfectly realized, and if their glitter seems to fade from a distance, they still provide instant and sophisticated gratification. New York author appearances. (Apr. 16) Forecast: Lee's work is frequently published in the New Yorker and other high-profile venues, and readers already captivated by her cool, ironic voice will be this collection's chief audience. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Interesting stories, too; several of them appeared in O. Henry Awards anthologies. Lee came to our attention some 20 years ago with Russian Journal. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



The Birthday Present A cellular phone is ringing, somewhere in Milan. Ariel knows that much. Or does she? The phone could be trilling its electronic morsel of Mozart or Bacharach in a big vulgar villa with guard dogs and closed-circuit cameras on the bosky shores of Lake Como. Or in an overpriced hotel suite in Portofino. Or why not in the Aeolian Islands, or on Ischia, or Sardinia? It's late September, and all over the Mediterranean the yachts of politicians and arms manufacturers and pan-Slavic gangsters are still snuggled side by side in the indulgent golden light of harbors where the calendars of the toiling masses mean nothing. The truth is that the phone could be ringing anywhere in the world where there are rich men. But Ariel prefers to envision Milan, which is the city nearest the Brianza countryside, where she lives with her family in a restored farmhouse. And she tries hard to imagine the tiny phone lying on a table in an apartment not unlike the one she shared fifteen years ago in Washington with a couple of other girls who were seniors at Georgetown. The next step up from a dorm, that is--like a set for a sitcom about young professionals whose sex lives, though kinky, have an endearing adolescent gaucheness. It would be too disturbing to think that she is telephoning a bastion of contemporary Milanese luxury, like the apartments of some of her nouveau-riche friends: gleaming marble, bespoke mosaics, boiserie stripped from defunct châteaux, a dispiriting sense of fresh money spread around like butter on toast. Hmmm--and if it were a place like that? There would be, she supposes, professional modifications. Mirrors: that went without saying, as did a bed the size of a handball court, with a nutria cover and conveniently installed handcuffs. Perhaps a small dungeon off the dressing room? At any rate, a bathroom with Moroccan hammam fixtures and a bidet made from an antique baptismal font. Acres of closets, with garter belts and crotchless panties folded and stacked with fetishistic perfection. And boxes of specialty condoms, divided, perhaps, by design and flavor. Are they ordered by the gross? From a catalog? But now Ariel retrieves her thoughts, because someone picks up the phone. "Pronto?" The voice is young and friendly and hasty. "Is this Beba?" Ariel asks in her correct but heavy Italian, from which she has never attempted to erase the American accent. "Yes," says the voice, with a merry air of haste. "I'm a friend of Flavio Costaldo's and he told me that you and your friend--your colleague--might be interested in spending an evening with my husband. It's a birthday present." When a marriage lingers at a certain stage--the not uncommon plateau where the two people involved have nothing to say to each other--it is sometimes still possible for them to live well together. To perform generous acts that do not, exactly, signal desperation. Flavio hadn't meant to inspire action when he suggested that Ariel give her husband, Roberto, "una fanciulla"--a young girl--for his fifty-fifth birthday. He'd meant only to irritate, as usual. Flavio is Roberto's best friend, a sixty-year-old Calabrian film producer who five or six years ago gave up trying to seduce Ariel, and settled for the alternative intimacy of tormenting her subtly whenever they meet. Ariel is a tall, fresh-faced woman of thirty-seven, an officer's child who grew up on army bases around the world, and whose classic American beauty has an air of crisp serviceability that--she is well aware--is a major flaw: in airports, she is sometimes accosted by travelers who are convinced that she is there in a professional capacity. She is always patient at parties when the inevitable pedant expounds on how unsuitable it is for a tall, rather slow-moving beauty to bear the name of the most volatile of sprites. Her own opinion--resolutely unvoiced, like so many of her thoughts--is that, besides being ethereal, Shakespeare's Ariel was mainly competent and faithful. As she herself is by nature: a rarity anywhere in the world, but particularly in Italy. She is the ideal wife--second wife--for Roberto, who is an old-fashioned domestic tyrant. And she is the perfect victim for Flavio. When he made the suggestion, they were sitting in the garden of his fourth wife's sprawling modern villa in a gated community near Como, and both of their spouses were off at the other end of the terrace, looking at samples of glass brick. But Ariel threw him handily off balance by laughing and taking up the idea. As she did so, she thought of how much affection she'd come to feel for good old Flavio since her early days in Italy, when she'd reserved for him the ritual loathing of a new wife for her husband's best friend. Nowadays she was a compassionate observer of his dawning old age and its accoutrements, the karmic doom of any superannuated playboy: tinted aviator bifocals and reptilian complexion; a rich, tyrannical wife who imposed a strict diet of fidelity and bland foods; a little brown address book full of famous pals who no longer phoned. That afternoon, Ariel for the first time had the satisfaction of watching his composure crumble when she asked him sweetly to get her the number of the best call girl in Milan. "You're not serious," he sputtered. "Ariel, cara, you've known me long enough to know I was joking. You aren't--" "Don't go into that nice-girl, bad-girl Latin thing, Flavio. It's a little dated, even for you." "I was going to say only that you aren't an Italian wife, and there are nuances you'll never understand, even if you live here for a hundred years." "Oh, please, spare me the anthropology," said Ariel. It was pleasant to have rattled Flavio to this extent. The idea of the fanciulla, to which she had agreed on a mischievous impulse unusual for her, suddenly grew more concrete. "Just get me the number." Flavio was silent for a few minutes, his fat, sun-speckled hands wreathing his glass of limoncello. "You're still sleeping together?" he asked suddenly. "Is it all right?" "Yes. And yes." "Allora, che diavolo stai facendo? What the hell are you doing? He's faithful to you, you know. It's an incredible thing for such a womanizer; you know about his first marriage. With you there have been a few little lapses, but nothing important." Ariel nodded, not even the slightest bit offended. She knew about those lapses, had long before factored them into her expectations about the perpetual foreign life she had chosen. Nothing he said, however, could distract her from her purpose. Flavio sighed and cast his eyes heavenward. "Va bene; Okay. But you have to be very careful," he said, shooting a glance down the terrace at his ever-vigilant wife, with her gold sandals and anorexic body. After a minute, he added cryptically, "Well, at least you're Catholic. That's something." So, thanks to Flavio's little brown book, Ariel is now talking to Beba. Beba--a toddler's nickname. Ex-model in her twenties. Brazilian, but not a transsexual. Tall. Dark. Works in tandem with a Russian blonde. "The two of them are so gorgeous that when you see them it's as if you have entered another sphere, a paradise where everything is simple and divine," said Flavio, waxing lyrical during the series of planning phone calls he and Ariel shared, cozy conversations that made his wife suspicious and gave him the renewed pleasure of annoying Ariel. "The real danger is that Roberto might fall in love with one of them," he remarked airily, during one of their chats. "No, probably not--he's too stingy." In contrast, it is easy talking to Beba. "How many men?" Beba asks, as matter-of-factly as a caterer. There is a secret happiness in her voice that tempts Ariel to investigate, to talk more than she normally would. It is an impulse she struggles to control. She knows from magazine articles that, like everyone else, prostitutes simply want to get their work done without a fuss. "Just my husband," Ariel says, feeling a calm boldness settle over her. "And you?" Flavio has said that Beba is a favorite among rich Milanese ladies who are fond of extracurricular romps. Like the unlisted addresses where they buy their cashmere and have their abortions, she is top-of-the-line and highly private. Flavio urged Ariel to participate and gave a knowing chuckle when she refused. The chuckle meant that, like everyone else, he thinks Ariel is a prude. She isn't--though the fact is obscured by her fatal air of efficiency, by her skill at writing out place cards, making homemade tagliatelle better than her Italian mother-in-law, and raising bilingual daughters. But no one realizes that over the years she has also invested that efficiency in a great many amorous games with the experienced and demanding Roberto. On their honeymoon, in Bangkok, they'd spent one night with two polite teenagers selected from a numbered lineup behind a large glass window. But that was twelve years ago, and although Ariel is not clear about her motives for giving this birthday present, she sees with perfect feminine good sense that she is not meant to be onstage with a pair of young whores who look like angels. The plan is that Ariel will make a date with Roberto for a dinner in town, and that instead of Ariel, Beba and her colleague will meet him. After dinner the three of them will go to the minuscule apartment near Corso Venezia that Flavio keeps as his sole gesture of independence from his wife. Ariel has insisted on dinner, though Flavio was against it, and Beba has told her, with a tinge of amusement, that it will cost a lot more. Most clients, she says, don't request dinner. Why Ariel should insist that her husband sit around chummily with two hookers, ordering antipasto, first and second courses, and dessert is a mystery, even to Ariel. Yet she feels that it is the proper thing to do. That's the way she wants it, and she can please herself, can't she? As they finish making the arrangements, Ariel is embarrassed to hear herself say, "I do hope you two girls will make things very nice. My husband is a wonderful man." And Beba, who is clearly used to talking to wives, assures her, with phenomenal patience, that she understands. As Ariel puts down the phone, it rings again, and of course it is her mother, calling from the States. "Well, you're finally free," says her mother, who seems to be chewing something, probably a low-calorie bagel, since it is 8:00 a.m. in Bethesda. "Who on earth were you talking to for so long?" Excerpted from Interesting Women: Stories by Andrea Lee All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.