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"Ladies' Lunch"
by Lore Segal
Originally published in the February 27, 2017 issue of The New Yorker.

Seeing Lore Segal in the pages of The New Yorker when she’s 88 years old is a welcome sight. She’s been publishing, at the rate of one novel per decade (though she skipped the 1990s) for over fifty years. Her 2007 novel, Shakespeare’s Kitchen, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

I myself have not read her work before, so I’m glad to have a chance to do so this week.

Please comment below and let us know how you felt about “Ladies’ Lunch.” I’m looking forward to the always lively discussion!

By | 2017-02-21T12:38:59+00:00 February 20th, 2017|Categories: Lore Segal, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |38 Comments

38 Comments

  1. Cheryl Payer February 24, 2017 at 12:12 pm

    This story is dynamite! Must reading for anyone who is growing old in New York City, or anywhere, or knows anyone who is. I rarely read New Yorker fiction and have never related so viscerally to any that I have read.
    Congratulations to Lore Segal for saying what must be said.

  2. Dennis Lang February 24, 2017 at 1:42 pm

    CP–Agreed! Funny, glib, yet devastatingly perceptive. None of us can be liberated from aging and the state of exile that can accompany it. Roles get reversed: kids caring for their parents. Parents no longer who they once were.

  3. David February 24, 2017 at 1:49 pm

    It’s nice that you two liked it, but I was bored. Did she say anything about aging that has not been said a thousand times before? Dennis, your description of the story seems to confirm my thought that it never rose above the most banal cliche. Was there anything new to the way she described aging? The way it was written much of it looked more like lines taken from a book of notes for a story, so it was not even an engaging read. Utterly unmemorable.

  4. Dennis Lang February 24, 2017 at 2:08 pm

    Hey David. I hear you. But not sure if any story hasn’t been told “a thousand times before.” It’s how it’s told and this one with economy and pace cuts deeply into most of our lives. I’ve lived it with grand parents and both parents and one of these days someone will be putting me out to graze somewhere. A story often told? Sure. But one deeply human and a mirror of our lives.

  5. William February 24, 2017 at 2:43 pm

    As usual, I’m with Dennis on this one. It’s the particulars that make a story, and particulars of this story, especially the angle of how the old ladies try but can’t rescue their friend, makes it specific enough to be moving.

    One esoteric thought: Lotte’s sons are named Samson and Gregor = Gregor Samsa. Kafka went to a TB sanitarium at the end of his life. So both he and Lotte were institutionalized. Lotte comes from Vienna, and Kafka’s sanitarium was outside of Vienna. Make of all that what you will. Perhaps the metamorphosis of old age makes us less than human?

  6. David February 24, 2017 at 4:35 pm

    Dennis, so as I read your reply you say yes, this is a story we have heard a thousand times before, but it’s short and she goes through it quickly so it’s ok? I don’t buy that. William, what could be symbolism might also just be lack of imagination. The ladies lunch is based on a ladies lunch group that Segal actually has and Lotte seems clearly based on Segal, who was herself born in Vienna. So I don’t make much of the idea there is something interesting here.

  7. Diana February 24, 2017 at 7:36 pm

    I hadgreat expectations for this story. I’m 73 and thougt to get maybe if not an epiphany, perhaps a glimpse of something I don’t yet know about, am still unable to really comprehend (the way Holden Caulfield gave 11 year old me a glimpse of what it was going ro be like to be a teenager, or Anna Karenina gave 22 year unmarried me, a 35 year old married woman’s perspective on an adulterous affair that’s bad for you and for everybody) But no such luck. Maybe one problem is it’s a realy short, short story. And altho very workman (woman?) like – an observant 50 year old could have written it – lunches with old friends the highlight of the month, failing bodies, infirm queroulous spouses, and finally the world’s indifference to Lotte’s predicament. I guess I wanted (or needed more from it

  8. pauldepstein February 24, 2017 at 10:38 pm

    The story really worked for me in that it was a vivid portrayal of an interesting group of older women that showed interesting conflicts. Has it been said many times before? I don’t know because I’m not nearly as well-read as the typical member of this online community. In fact, I’m applying for work as a software developer, and this involves studying algorithms and writing code, leaving me only time to read about two stories a week. Lore Segal’s Reverse Bug, also published in the New Yorker, was highly (and deservedly) acclaimed.

    Paul

  9. Sean H February 25, 2017 at 2:17 am

    A clever allegory riffing on the nanny state, the “death of America,” and the age old story of safety’s eternal battle with liberty. Brisk and tidy in terms of plot and pacing, with characters that are recognizable if not entirely three-dimensional. “You doctors need to do a study of the correlation between salt-free food and depression.” Indeed. And not surprising that a Holocaust survivor would have more than a dash of libertine (and libertarian) spirit in her prose.

  10. William February 25, 2017 at 10:24 am

    Diana —

    I’m also 73. My wife and I and our friends talk a lot about failing parents (some of our younger friends still have living but demented parents) and our own physical and mental failings and how to avoid the nursing home trap. So this was not new territory for me. Yet I liked it and found it sad — for me fiction doesn’t need to say something that I don’t know, but to show it in a way that makes an emotional impact. Think about “Gusev” — we would all endorse universal equality, but Chekhov shows it in a powerful way.

    Paul —

    “Has it been said many times before? I don’t know because I’m not nearly as well-read as the typical member of this online community.”

    Don’t sell yourself short. I consider myself fairly well read. But I can’t recall a story just like this one. To my mind there is way too much commentary of the “this has been done before” genre. Personally, I consider these comments irrelevant. To me, there is only one consideration — the story in front of me. Is it well done? Does it hold my my attention? Does it make med feel? If the answers are “Yes”, then I consider it a good story.

  11. Dennis Lang February 25, 2017 at 2:19 pm

    Just one more thought, to David, foregoing: “…but it’s short and she goes through it quickly so it’s ok?”

    No, not at all. But this can’t be more than 1,000 words. The characters defined and the narrative driven primarily by wonderfully observant and revealing dialogue, about aging, friendship, and kinship, ultimately poignant–Lotte imagining the car that will take her back home.

    Anyway, that’s the way the story hit me.

  12. Paul February 25, 2017 at 2:39 pm

    William,

    Thanks. By the way, I am the same person as pauldepstein. I’m identified as Paul or pauldepstein
    depending on which computer I use.

    As mathematician, I was once really proud of the way I proved a result in set theory. Later, I realised
    that I had read this same argument before and was in fact not developing a new argument but remembering something I’d read without realising it.

    So the fact that my proof had “been done before” did matter to me.

    I think that many on this forum have been published in literary magazines or made submissions there. Places like Antioch or the Indiana Review or something like that. They publish a lot of short stories and poems but unlike the New Yorker, almost no one reads them. Readers are either subscribers or
    people who come by them in university libraries.

    I haven’t written anything worth submitting to these journals. I don’t want to sell myself short.
    For a living, I wrote some code for a website and both I and my previous employer recognise that
    my code helped to make the owners of the company rich.

    Some have tried to argue that writing software isn’t a million miles away from writing fiction. Both require structure, testing, several iterations etc.

    Paul

  13. Eric February 25, 2017 at 2:55 pm

    Is this that common a theme in fiction? It’s of course a common theme in nonfiction, not to mention real life (including my own, at the moment–we just forced mom to go into assisted living, much against her will). But there are worthwhile things you can say in fiction about just any topic that can’t be said when you have to stick to a more literal truth.

    That said, I found this particular story only moderately successful, because it mostly read more like well-realized nonfiction than fiction. I like Soren’s way with words, and it sounds like the real-life Lotte was quite a character, but that’s about all I got out of it.

  14. Dennis Lang February 25, 2017 at 3:13 pm

    Hmmm…? Eric, aren’t both fiction and nonfiction ultimately engaged in discovering and revealing an underlying truth? Each requiring observation, sensitivity and craft? Is one form more worthy than the other?

    PS: I empathize with the situation with your mom. Two of my friends going through the exact same thing with their parents at this moment. Baby boomers now caring for their parents. Anxieties and challenges. Hang in there!

  15. Sean H February 25, 2017 at 7:18 pm

    Just for my two cents on a couple of things. First, this story is over 2,500 words, that’s a huge difference from 1,000 (which would make it flash fiction). Also, whether or not a story possesses originality does matter, but originality is relative. There are only seven basic plots, so yes, essentially every story has been told billions or trillions of times, not just thousands, but I think when people discuss literary originality they’re more talking about how something new compares to the literary canon. And while literature is far more forgiving than the other arts regarding a lack of originality, people are generally more moved (emotionally) or more likely to find depth, or truth, or relatability, when a story unfolds in a new way, when its content may be familiar but its way of portraying or incarnating that content is unlike previously written stories familiar to us from our reading (of largely western and largely canonical works).

  16. mehbe February 25, 2017 at 9:33 pm

    This story had a strong and complicated effect on me. I suppose to some extent that’s because of the nearness of similar events in the lives of loved ones, and others that I know.

    The first word that came to mind to describe it, right after finishing reading it, was “brutal”. Yes, I have been fairly aware for years of the terrible ways in which American society disposes of its useless elderly people, but this story distilled a good deal of that into a potent little firebomb of a story that got to me.

    I read it a few days ago, but just thinking about it still makes me very angry, as well as sad. Because of that, it strikes me as being an effective polemic, as well as a decent story. There seemed to be a subtext practically screaming at me while I read – “WHY DOES IT HAVE TO BE LIKE THIS?”. Am I merely projecting my own sensibility onto the story, or is that subtext something the author feels? I can’t tell.

    I’m also finding that the story works quite well as a horror story, like a sophisticated take on the idea of the zombie, something that is strangely popular right now. Lotte’s experience is essentially one of being zombified, of being ripped out of her normal life and put into a state of being among the living dead. And she knows it, which makes it even more horrifying. Her spirit has been murdered, while her body lives on. Her friends watch what happens to her, and want to help her, but are unable to do anything (transportation issues are woven into the story to the extent they seem to be an important theme, reflecting what happens to old people in real life). And, although I don’t remember that it was stated explicitly, the friends are probably fearing that something similar may eventually happen to them, as well. The story can feel distinctly creepy to me if I see it as a contemporary horror tale, a perspective which, once I thought of it, it seems to invite.

  17. Rosalind February 26, 2017 at 9:35 pm

    This story is my worst nightmare. Assisted living is the land of the living dead! In a few pages I got the picture of aging in our culture. Run me over with a city bus…

  18. Eric February 27, 2017 at 2:34 am

    Dennis–well, let me put it this way. After reading this story, and knowing what my parents and others are going through, the only gift I’d want for a hypothetical 88th birthday is a batch of clean needles and the contact info for a good local smack dealer. He could come in once a week to mow my lawn; I’d give him a small check for the mowing, and a larger sum in cash for “other services”. This should make my last year or two on this mortal coil reasonably pleasant.

    OK, I didn’t literally mean that. In real life, this would be a bad idea for all kinds of reasons.

    But I bet it would make a heck of a story.

  19. Eric February 27, 2017 at 2:46 am

    Btw, I wanted to mention that, if you liked this story and also Roz Chast’s TNY cartoons, you will probably also like “Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?”, her illustrated memoir of her own parents’ final years. Although I liked this story OK, I found the Chast book more affecting.

  20. Dennis Lang February 27, 2017 at 10:43 am

    Hah!!

    That would be a heck of a story, Eric! Well Done.

    Interestingly, on a more somber note, I recall studies last year that showed the baby-boom generation is committing suicide at a higher rate. It had been declining. Researchers aren’t sure exactly why and cite various possible explanations.I think the geriatric generation has been stable. Personally, I’d prefer to be 23 again.

  21. Greg February 28, 2017 at 1:13 am

    William – This observation of yours really hit home with me:

    “…for me fiction doesn’t need to say something that I don’t know, but to show it in a way that makes an emotional impact.”

    Paul – I am still thinking about this intriguing hypothesis and on how accurate it is:

    “Some have tried to argue that writing software isn’t a million miles away from writing fiction. Both require structure, testing, several iterations etc.”

    Sean – I loved both your posts! My favourite part was this:

    “…people are generally more moved (emotionally) or more likely to find depth, or truth, or relatability, when a story unfolds in a new way, when its content may be familiar but its way of portraying or incarnating that content is unlike previously written stories familiar to us from our reading (of largely western and largely canonical works).”

    And lastly, thank you Mehbe for emphasizing the brutality in the story. This analysis of yours is frightenly precise:

    “Her spirit has been murdered, while her body lives on.”

  22. Paul March 1, 2017 at 5:42 pm

    Greg

    Nice to see that my comment piqued your interest. I think it’s natural (at least for me) for people to attempt to make a coherent whole out of their life experiences. If someone has had several distinct interests, a narrative can be created or at least enhanced by finding elements of commonality between them. I’ve always loved the New Yorker stories, although I tend to endorse the view that the quality of these stories has declined rapidly and recently. Largely under the influence of these stories, I enrolled in several undergraduate creative writing classes when I was about 28 (this was 22 years ago). None of my stories were successful — I never got to the stage where the reader understood the story I was trying to tell, and this meant that none of my stories worked. So I stopped writing and did other things. I didn’t have the self-discipline for the process of fiction writing.
    Anyway, now I write computer programs for a living. In the contemporary lingo, this is called “software engineering”, “software development” or “quantitative development” but it’s the same thing as computer programming, except that there’s a predominant belief that the contemporary vocab is status-enhancing.
    I like to think that there’s a connection between my interest in fiction and my career in software for the sake of creating a purposeful life story out of my autobiography, rather than representing myself as
    someone who veers hopelessly from one phase to the next like a drunk walking on a slippery floor. But asserting a connection might be a stretch. Who knows?

    Paul

  23. William March 3, 2017 at 2:52 pm

    I think it’s impressive how long the discussion on this story has continued, and how serious and somber these last comments have been. Near the beginning, David said:

    “It’s nice that you two liked it, but I was bored. Did she say anything about aging that has not been said a thousand times before?”

    Clearly, whether or not the author said anything that has not been said a thousand times before, she said it in a way that moved people. I think that’s a very important fact to recognize about writing. One might say that documentary writing could do the same thing, only better Doris Lessing would not agree:

    “I have to conclude that fiction is better at ‘the truth’ than a factual record.”

    mehbe’s reaction supports this view:

    “The first word that came to mind to describe it, right after finishing reading it, was “brutal”. Yes, I have been fairly aware for years of the terrible ways in which American society disposes of its useless elderly people, but this story distilled a good deal of that into a potent little firebomb of a story that got to me.”

    BTW, I was at first distanced by mehbe’s idea that this is a zombie story. But I was convinced by his explanation:

    “[It’s] like a sophisticated take on the idea of the zombie, something that is strangely popular right now. Lotte’s experience is essentially one of being zombified, of being ripped out of her normal life and put into a state of being among the living dead. And she knows it, which makes it even more horrifying.”

    Like being paralyzed but conscious. Horrific.

    With regard to the revulsion at our current way of dealing with the elderly:

    1. It’s not always terrible. My wife’s stepfather is in assisted care and he’s quite content.

    2. Based on my experience with my mother and our friends’ experiences with their elderly parents, I can’t come up with a better system. I don’t want to live out my days that way (though who knows how I’ll feel at the time?), but I think it’s okay for many. Not Lotte, of course. But is she the exception or the rule?

    Finally, I’d like to react to Paul’s comment:

    “I like to think that there’s a connection between my interest in fiction and my career in software for the sake of creating a purposeful life story out of my autobiography,”

    Go for it! No one can naysay you if you see that connection,. You are the author of your life story.

    BTW, with regard to the several names for programming: my son and his friends sometimes call it “coding” and the people who do it “coders”. I like that term because it carries the sense of something secret, or known only to a select few.

  24. Dennis Lang March 3, 2017 at 3:58 pm

    Interesting William. I’m not familiar with the Doris Lessing quote, but remember the great writers of nonfiction–termed “verity” by Richard Rhodes–were hardly stenographers, merely transcribing a reality. A few come to mind: Hersey, Halberstam, Didion, Talese, Tom Wolf and the “new journalists”, Susan Orleans. etc. etc…. I’m sure you can think of many more prominent ones than me. Like great photography, it’s taking the stuff of reality, sifting it through a personal vision and expressing it to arrive at a fundamental truth. (Sorry, that sounded horribly pretentious, but you know what I’m trying to say.)

  25. Greg March 3, 2017 at 11:23 pm

    Paul – Thank you for expanding on your personal belief that programming is similar to writing. It actually reminded me of Edith Wharton’s comparison of writing a novel to the making of a business deal…..and the revelation that you struggled to write well was very gracious of you.

    William – I liked how you stressed the importance of a piece “moving” us. Sometimes we get too caught up in technical and intellectual achievements. In addition, whenever someone will criticize my own view of my life, I will remember these wise words from you, “You are the author of your life story.” Lastly, I was surprised to read that you wouldn’t be happy to live in an old age home….I always pictured you as someone who is simply content with his cup of coffee and a good book?

  26. Diana March 4, 2017 at 11:08 pm

    William you communicate your enjoyment of the story very well. My take, more simply said, was that the story just didn’t engage me. I too found it sad but the dry manner of telling Lotte’s story or the ironic detachment of the narrator undercut the sadness somewhat. As a result, I felt I was left with an abstract take on poor Lotte’s situation. Despite her own feisty struggle, and her friends’ best intentions, she slips out of their lives into the isolation of old age.

  27. Ken March 5, 2017 at 2:01 am

    I can relate personally as I have seen relatives deteriorate and I have parents over 80 (although they’re basically fine) but I also found the dry and fragmented nature a perfect complement to the sad, wrenching content. The last entry about two of the friends planning a visit we know will never happen was really haunting.

  28. Greg March 5, 2017 at 10:11 pm

    Well said Ken – I agree 100%

  29. Ellen March 5, 2017 at 10:59 pm

    I found this story poignant and sad, yet it still managed to inject humour into the many aspects of growing old. Lotte’s relationship to her caretakers was “right on”. Her annoyance was made palpable by the explicit details given. Similarly, the downside of continuing to live alone sounded almost liberating. We would all like to shuffle off watching our own tv programs, eating bread, butter and sugar while reclining on our velvet sofa with a view of the Hudson River Wiahful thinking, as Lore Segal so succinctly points out.

  30. William March 6, 2017 at 6:31 pm

    Diana —

    You wrote that

    “I too found it sad but the dry manner of telling Lotte’s story or the ironic detachment of the narrator undercut the sadness somewhat.”

    In this regard, Ken said very well what I felt —

    “I found the dry and fragmented nature a perfect complement to the sad, wrenching content.”

    Ellen’s take was —

    “I found this story poignant and sad, yet it still managed to inject humour into the many aspects of growing old.”

    What an impressive range of responses! All from one story. What does this tell us? Different people want different levels of explicit vs. implicit emotional expression. I’m with Ken and Ellen on this one. But I admit that’s totally subjective. Perhaps this lesson is most important for any of us who are writing. “You can please some of the people some of the time . . .”

  31. William March 6, 2017 at 7:27 pm

    Greg —

    You wrote —

    “Lastly, I was surprised to read that you wouldn’t be happy to live in an old age home….I always pictured you as someone who is simply content with his cup of coffee and a good book?”

    Your comment leads to a crucial distinction. Yes, I am content with a good mystery novel (or a good short story) and a cup of coffee. But I wouldn’t be happy with ONLY that. The question is — what are we wiling to relinquish?

    In addition to a cup of coffee and a book and the leisure to enjoy them, I want to be able to run several times a week, to go to concerts and movies and plays and restaurants, to be able to travel cross-country to see my grandchildren, etc. Now I know that care homes organize cultural events for their residents, I see those buses outside the SF Symphony etc. But that’s a significant loss of independence. And it still leaves the other activities lost.

    Which points up this distinction: It’s not being in a home per se that is the problem. It’s the fact that being in a home reflects a substantial loss of function and autonomy. Those are the issues for me.

  32. Greg March 7, 2017 at 4:23 am

    I see what you are saying William…..being put into an old age home would severely narrow your life…..I hope then that you can stay in your house until you die!

  33. William March 7, 2017 at 10:43 am

    Greg —

    Thanks for your good wish. I hope so too. Even more, I hope that my life is like The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay, which worked perfectly for 100 years, then:

    You see, of course, if you’re not a dunce,
    How it went to pieces all at once, —
    All at once, and nothing first, —
    Just as bubbles do when they burst.

    http://holyjoe.org/poetry/holmes1.htm

  34. Greg March 8, 2017 at 10:20 pm

    Thanks William for this adorable poem!

    Also, up here in Canada, the Queen writes us a letter when we turn 100!

  35. William March 9, 2017 at 8:39 pm

    Greg —

    Glad you enjoyed the poem.

    What a nice custom to receive a letter from the Queen. She’s moving toward her own hundredth birthday. Perhaps she’ll abdicate to Prince William. Poor Prince Charles.

  36. Paul Monsky March 13, 2017 at 9:28 am

    This octogenarian was glad to find Segal as fierce and funny as ever.(I’ve been reading her since “Other People’s Kitchens”–“Her First American” is my favorite). Another fine work on the relations between the old and the young is Cathleen Schine’s “They May Not Mean To But They Do”.

  37. William March 15, 2017 at 9:01 pm

    Paul –

    Good observations. Thanks for those references to other old-people stories.

  38. William March 16, 2017 at 8:07 pm

    Paul —

    I found the Schine novel at my library . But the only title I can find by Segal is “Shakespeare’s Kitchen”.

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