What Can We Steal From Jennifer Haigh’s “Paramour”?
Title of Work and its Form: “Paramour,” short story
Author: Jennifer Haigh
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story made its debut in the Winter 2011-12 issue of Ploughshares, a top-notch lit mag. (That issue was guest-edited by Alice Hoffman.) You can order a back issue from the kind folks at Ploughshares or you can find the story through Project Muse. Editors Tom Perrotta and Heidi Pitlor selected the story for the 2012 edition of the Best American Short Stories anthology.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Sentence Structure
Christine is a college teacher who began her academic life as a writer. Ivan Borysenko, an attractive older teacher, awakened her interest in playwriting. At nineteen, Christine spent a lot of time with Ivan and loved thinking about what other people were thinking about her, even though the two never had a “real” affair. She sat in the nude for him as he made his art. Fifteen years later, Christine is in New York City to attend a ceremony in tribute to Ivan. The experience is a bit shocking to her; she’s remembering herself as she was so long ago. She meets Martin, an assertive man who pursues her rapaciously. There is, of course, a nice discussion between Christine and Ivan. His seventeen-year-old daughter Pia intrudes, allowing Christine (and Ms. Haigh) to solidify the parallel between the two characters. Christine tries to understand herself and her experience with Ivan; how convenient that she can compare her own immaturity to that of Pia. Is there a Christine/Ivan hookup? Nope. She has a passionate evening with Martin. The next day, Christine learns that Pia’s assumed maturity has brought consequences: the young woman drunk-drove her car into a concrete barrier. Thanks to seat belts and air bags, she survived.
The structure that Ms. Haigh chose for “Paramour” is very interesting and very solid, but I want to zoom in and look at the way the author constructed her sentences. As you are no doubt aware, there are countless ways for you to construct your sentences. Here’s an example from the story of what I call a “backward” sentence:
With her best friend, a boy named Tommy, she had suffered two attempts—one failed, one nominally successful; both awkward and crushingly sad.
Christine is the protagonist of the story; why did Ms. Haigh give Tommy top billing in the sentence? I think that casting the sentence in this way helps the reader identify that he or she is meeting a new character. Tommy is indeed important to Christine, so he is important to us, too. Would the sentence as effectively communicate Christine’s backstory were it cast like this?
Christine had suffered two attempts—one failed, one nominally successful—at lovemaking with her best friend Tommy; both attempts were awkward and crushingly sad.
In the above representation of the sentence, Christine is the star and Tommy may be overlooked.
Here’s a paragraph that is crucial to the story. Look at the second sentence:
Later she understood how gravely she’d miscalculated. That with every lover for the rest of her life, Ivan Borysenko would hover in the room.
How is the meaning changed if the sentence were cast this way:
Ivan Borysenko would hover in the room with each lover for the rest of her life.
Or this way:
Ivan Borysenko haunted Christine each time she shared time with another lover.
Or this way:
Every future lover of Christine’s would exist in the shadow of Ivan Borysenko.
Each version of the sentence emphasizes different characters and ideas. Each is perfectly valid, but you should remain open as to which construction of a sentence best serves your story.
I love the strange, dark turn that the story takes at its end. In a way, the denouement breaks a rule: the car accident doesn’t happen to the protagonist. All of the important events crammed into that last paragraph take place while Christine is in bed with her new gentleman friend. Why is the ending so successful? I think it’s because it is so jarring. For nine pages, Ms. Haigh invited the reader to consider the differences between young and old Christine (not the TV show, of course) and invited the reader to join Christine in wondering what her life might be like if things had happened differently. Pia is a parallel character to Christine, implicitly and explicitly. The excesses of Pia’s life causes grave consequences; the realization is as sharp for the reader as it is for Christine. The protagonist has wondered for fifteen years what her life would be like had she fully become “Ivan’s girl.” And now she knows.
Ms. Haigh is reminding us that action takes place within characters in addition to outside of them. It’s much easier for folks to tell when one character in engaged in a fistfight with another than it is to describe inner turmoil. Ending the story with what happened to Pia solidifies the parallel nature of the characters and implies, in a way, Christina really was in the car.
What Should We Steal?
- Treat your sentences like collections of Lego blocks. Switch around the elements of your sentences to decide what you want to emphasize.
- Allow action to take place “offstage” if the effects are meaningful for your characters. Emotional impact counts as action, too!