Toronto: Harper Collins Canada, 1999
New York: Soho Press, 2000 (hard cover).
New York: Harper Collins (US), 2001
I was surprised when Gloria turned out to be my most commercially successful book. During the eight years I was writing it, I sometimes wondered who on earth would want to read a long, dense, highly detailed novel about a country club girl in 1957—and it’s true that some people don’t care for it much. The story doesn’t seem to resonate with women Gloria’s age (maybe because they lived through the 50s once, they have no desire to live through it again), and men sometimes find the subject matter unendurably girly, but many young women have loved the book passionately and sent me emails telling me so. I’ve received more fan mail for Gloria than I have for all of my other books put together, and I deeply appreciate it.
While I was researching Gloria, I talked to many women who had survived the 50s. I also read fiction written for girls, fashion magazines, girls’ magazines, “how to be a girl” books, high school home economics texts, social histories, memoirs, biographies, and autobiographies. I tried to take all of this information personally—as though I were Gloria, living in her time, as though it all applied to me. I wanted to immerse myself in Gloria’s world, see everything through her eyes.
Having corrected misspellings found in the HarperCollins Canadian edition, the Soho Press edition (New York) is the definitive text.
Gloria was short-listed for the Governor General’s Award in 1999. It is out of print.
Gloria liked the cool, shadowless north light in the guest room so much she was reluctant to dispel it. The only mirror was a tilting, full-length one; she wondered if she were the first girl who’d ever looked into it. She wished she had a formal—wearing a formal would have been really witty—but she didn’t, so her midnight-blue Traina-Norell would have to do. She’d drunk enough wine to feel a pleasant fizz in her brain. Maybe she could write off her strange mood to a few alcohol molecules.
She tilted the mirror back to favor her face; even with no more light than the soft, flat glow from the window, she could, if she bent close, do her makeup perfectly well. For the two-person masquerade in which she was about to assume a starring role, she wanted to be genuinely masked, so she sponged on a thick layer of foundation, then painted onto that primed, empty canvas the image of a sophisticated grown-up lady from a Vogue cover, stopping just short of parody. She hooked herself into her waspie, put on her underwear and hose—and paused, aware of something going on in a dim, far corner of her mind.
She looked around for a clue as to what she might be feeling, was drawn to the reproduction from the Book of Kells. The caption told her that it was the opening words of St. John’s gospel, but she couldn’t find anything that looked as though it might say what it was supposed to say: “In principia erat verbum—” The ground was parchment yellow; the elaborate Celtic curlicues had been worked in lovely blues and oranges—or at least that’s what remained after centuries of fading. Perched on the top near the left was a bearded man with huge, sad eyes—presumably the saint himself—wearing what looked like a purple bathrobe and holding on his lap a rectangle that was probably meant to be a book and not a tea tray. A smaller man to his right appeared to be inhaling from a funnel. (Clearing his sinuses with the mediaeval equivalent of Vicks Vaporub?) “Biderat,” was all she could read. What on earth could that possibly mean? The soft ticking in her mind had, as it so often did, turned out to be a poem, lines from Graves: “—the greatness, rareness, muchness, fewness of this precious only endless world—”
She stepped back. She should finish getting dressed—it would be impolite to keep him waiting too long—but she still didn’t want to leave the guest room. She had a strong sense of—well, not exactly of deja vu; it was more like the illusion she could sometimes create at night: that she’d rotated, that her head was now at the foot of her bed and all the objects in her room were in a reversed position. With similar conviction, she felt that the door of this room could open into the upstairs hallway at home; if she stepped through it, she could walk either into her own room or her grandmother’s—would find her grandmother propped up on pillows, watching the television—
Then she was aware, suddenly, of herself in this particular room, and aware with such an intensity it made her feel as though she must spend the greater part of her waking life sleepwalking: the way the light fell right now—the muted, green-tinted colors it created—and the calling of a bird, the sound of soft footsteps in the house, a hint of a breeze through the screened window tickling the hair on her arms; and the weight of her body flowing down through her hips into her legs and feet, the immediacy of the sensation of the thick nap of the rug felt through the slippiness of her nylons— The fear of death struck her. Oh, she thought, how could this elaborate, intricate, wonderful web of interconnections ever be extinguished?
She turned on the light on the dresser, the one by the bed table, and the overhead light. If there had been a radio in the room, she would have turned that on too. She didn’t have to think about death for another fifty or sixty years at least. It didn’t do the least bit of good to think about it—
She stepped into her nylon half-slip and her crinolines. She put on her Traina-Norell and zipped it up. Oh, her wretched straight hair; she needed some big, bold earrings to take the attention away from it. She looked in her jewelry box, selected pearl dangles and clipped them on. She stepped into her opera pumps, pulled on her gloves, added a diamond bracelet to her left wrist. She straightened the mirror, studied herself, and was pleased: she looked every bit as wittily artificial as she’d wished. She drew herself up until she found that crucial inner edge she always needed before she made an entrance.
As she stepped into the hallway, the magnificent smell of the cooking chicken reminded her she was hungry again. Placing each foot carefully onto an imaginary line stretching before her, she walked into the living room. Professor Bolton was sitting in one of the big chairs, reading—wearing a tuxedo and, of all wonderfully ridiculous things, patent dancing pumps. He looked up, smiling, and watched her cross the room to the sound of her rustling crinolines.
He rose to his feet and took her arm. She allowed herself to be escorted into the dining room. He held a chair for her. She couldn’t contain herself any longer and began to giggle. So did he. “Gloria,” he said, “you are simply marvelous.”
“I love playing dress up,” she said. “I always have.”
Excerpt from Gloria, ©Keith Maillard, 1999