Born in rural Carrollton, Mississippi, Elizabeth Spencer has been writing masterly stories and novellas about Southerners for more than half a century. The Southern Woman collects the best of Spencer’s shorter fiction and displays her range of place–the agrarian South, Italy in the decade after the Second World War, the gray-sky North, and the contemporary Sun Belt. In “The Little Brown Girl,” Maybeth discovers the limits of friendship in a racially divided world. In the elegiac “The Cousins,” a group of Southerners roams through Italy, brushing with love and regret and the grip of family. Also included is “The Light in the Piazza,” the novella about an American woman and her daughter in Florence that brought Spencer widespread acclaim and was adapted for both the screen and the Broadway stage. In this capstone collection, Elizabeth Spencer firmly claims her place in the distinguished heritage of the Southern short story.
Every good Southern writer interprets the essence of existence in that region in a distinctive way, and Spencer, whose career has spanned 60 years, is one of the most distinguished of a group that includes Eudora Welty and Peter Taylor. Her fiction is as much a record of 20th-century American life as it is particularly "Southern" in cast. The largest section of this new collection of her work is devoted to her stories set in the South, and the social themes are finely wrought. In "Ship Island," a young woman feels increasingly off-kilter when she spends a summer dating a boy from the established "In Crowd," who represent a genial but sheltered world of tennis whites and rush parties. The three Marilee stories explore a complicated family history against the backdrop of small-town rural Mississippi (the landscape of Spencer's childhood) in the 1930s and 1940s. Included in the group of Italian stories is Spencer's best-known work, the novella "The Light in the Piazza" a mother-daughter tale and love story that was made into a 1962 movie. Spencer is especially adept at seamlessly anchoring family histories and coming-of-age narratives in a particular time and place. Later stories (some set in Canada and New York) include "Jack of Diamonds," which nails the relationship between 18-year-old Rosalind and her father, three years following the tragic death of her mother, and the poignant "The Legacy" (one of six new stories), wherein a crippled young woman comes into some money and embarks on a journey of self-discovery. Spencer's world-view even in the shorter vignettes is broad, and her keen eye and ear for domestic detail will interest those with a penchant for John Cheever or Alice Munro. This career-spanning collection should firmly secure her place in the canon of American short story masters.