‘The Daughters’ by Maeve Brennan

The Daughters by Maeve Brennan, 1955

The magic trick:

Flipping the story’s vantage point on the reader and protagonist both, without ever actually shifting the narrative point of view

This story sneaks up on you in a really cool way. It starts by establishing our protagonist in a hotel lobby waiting for her father. What she sees instead, while she waits, is two women wheeling an old man out of the elevator. The text never explicitly gives any negative observations or judgments to our protagonist. In fact, it’s never explicitly negative at all. But it’s clear from the omniscient narration, that these two women are a little bit ridiculous. And it feels – because we know our protagonist is watching them, waiting in the lobby – that we are seeing them through her eyes. We move through this early part of the story feeling as though our protagonist is not impressed by these two women.

And then comes the really cool part.

The story doesn’t shift perspective per se, but the plot moves into new territory. One of the women our protagonist has been observing begins talking to her. She is identifying herself with our protagonist. They’re both women in New York trying to take care of their elderly fathers. Isn’t it funny when they do this? Haven’t you noticed what they do when this happens? She sees them standing on common ground, maybe even as potential friends.

This, of course, flies in the face of what we sensed before – that these two characters are not like-minded at all. They’re antagonists, if anything. Now suddenly, we’re not so sure. Maybe our protagonist was looking into a mirror earlier in the story. I’m sure it pains her to think of this.

The story has flipped the point of view on its head without ever changing the point of view.

And that’s quite a trick on Brennan’s part.

The selection:

At eleven-thirty in the morning, a weekday morning, a nervous lady of about forty sat alone on a love seat in the lobby of a little hotel on lower Fifth Avenue and waited for her father to escort her to lunch. The lobby was square and paneled and furnished in chintz, and would have been really cozy if it had not been for a large, walled recess in which the upper half of a clerk was always visible, and the cashier’s cage, with its hand-sized aperture for the placing of money, and the two elevators with their uniformed attendants, and the brilliantly lighted glass doors – a wide one leading to the restaurant, and a narrow, pursed one to the bar. The lady on the love seat, Miss Lister, was one of the hotel’s permanent guests. As she watched the elevators she fidgeted, with her gloves, and with the collar of her navy-blue coat, and with the modest silver pin at her throat, and once or twice she put up her hand and touched the maroon sailor that sat like an offering on her neat brown hair.

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