Longing and Loneliness in the South

The Ballad of the Sad Café
Carson McCullers

I have a weakness for Southern fiction, especially from Southern women writers. I remember first being introduced to them back in high school. One of the titles that stuck with me was Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I don’t remember much of the specifics about the book, but I remember loving it.

I was in my favorite bookstore the other day when I came across The Ballad of the Sad Café. I figured it would be the perfect little book to take on my plane ride to Florida.  It includes the title novella, plus six other short stories.
All of the selections are a bit frightening. Not in a ghost-stories-around-the-campfire type of way, but in a haunting, exposing your innermost insecurities type of way.
In Wunderkind, McCullers spins a tale based on the demise of her own budding musical career. There is a thick fog of foreboding permeating the tale. From the beginning, we know things are not going to turn out well for young Frances.
McCullers’ descriptive ability shines here, especially when describing the music teacher, Mr. Bilderbach:

“The quick eyes behind the horn-rimmed glasses; the light, thin hair and the narrow face beneath; the lips full and loose shut and the lower one pink and shining from the bites of his teeth; the forked veins in his temples throbbing plainly enough to be observed across the room.”
Despite the beauty of the writing, the story stretches on, excruciatingly painful, walking us through each of Frances’ attempts, and failures. You feel how Frances must have felt at that last piano lesson – just please let this be done! Of course, that’s not a complaint – McCullers purposely makes you feel uncomfortable, and succeeds marvelously.
The two major themes throughout the book are love and loneliness. As far as love – what is it, who has it, what does it do to a person.  Loneliness – the universality of it. Together, they form the backbone of a fascinating collection.

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