"M&M World" by Kate Walbert Originally published in the May 30, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
Several years ago (more on the specific timing below), I read Kate Walbert’s debut novel The Gardens of Kyoto. I haven’t read a thing by her since, though her novel A Short History of Women was one of the New York Times’ top ten books of 2009, along side Maile Meloy’s Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It (a truly fantastic book). I’m afraid this story isn’t making me feel I’ve missed out, but perhaps that says more about me than the story.
“M&M World” is the story about an aging single mother named Ginny. The girls’ father (as he’s known throughout the story) left a while back, a departure they tried to handle as maturely and rationally as possible. It’s now a nice spring day in New York City. Ginny is walking with her two daughters, Olivia and Maggie, down Central Park West when they beg to go to M&M World. Walbert describes it perfectly:
Ginny had promised to take the girls to M&M World, that ridiculous place in Times Square they had passed too often in a taxi, Maggie scooting to press her face to the glass to watch the giant smiling M&M scale the Empire State Building on the electronic billboard and wave from the spire, its color dissolving yellow, then blue, then red, then yellow again. She had promised.
As happens, the promise was made on another day to put it off for some time in the future that wouldn’t come, or, if it did, the promise would be forgotten or perhaps something else could take its place. Of course, children a known to remember such promises and have their ways of making sure you keep them.
“All right,” she found herself saying. “Just once. Today. Just once. This is it.” Breaking her resolution to stop qualifying — five more minutes, this last page, one more bite — and wishing, mid-speech, she would stop. She has tried. Just as she has tried to be more easygoing, but when push comes to shove, as it always will, she is not easygoing. And she qualifies.
What we get in this story is more than a simple trip to M&M World, thankfully. It’s a look at this single mother, who seems to have lost herself along the way, who seems tired and unhappy, as much as she really loves her two daughters. The story flashes back to a trip Ginny took with the girls’ father to Chile when she saw a whale up close. The girls’ father was on the other side of the boat and promised to get her if he saw anythhing; she, however, keeps it to herself. It then flashes forward to the loud, rather obnoxious world of Times Square, and Ginny isn’t looking in the right direction:
There are other things to fix, not just her yellow teeth. She needs some spots removed from her skin; she needs to dye her gray roots, the stubborn tuft that refuses to blend. She could use somehting for her posture — Pilates — and she’s overdue a mammogram, a bone scan, a colonoscopy. She needs a new coat, an elegant one like those she’s seen on other mothers, something stylish to go with the other stylish clothes she means to buy, and the boots, the right boots, not just the galoshes she’s slipped on every morning all winter; it’s spring now, isn’t it?
Perhaps my principal issue with this story, which becomes tense and is, I think, quite well written on a sentence-by-sentence level (she paces her sentences nicely), is that this story of a is fairly familiar territory and I didn’t feel that adding the whale really elevated this story. Perhaps I’ll feel differently after I’ve mulled it over more in my mind, but I’m not counting on it. I remember almost everything about reading The Gardens of Kyoto. I picked it up late one night at a bookstore, attracted by its cover more than anything. It was an assignment for a class I was taking — go find some new book you have never heard of and read it. That night my car blew a tire and the next morning I read most of the book while waiting at the mechanics for new tires. The television was carrying the news of the Queen Mother’s death. For late March, it was beautiful weather in Idaho. I remember almost nothing about the book itself, though, which is strange because usually when I have such strong associations with my surroundings I can remember individual paragraphs and where they were on the page. I believe I will find this story just as forgettable, even if I’ll never be able to forget that M&M scaling the Empire State Building.