One of England’s finest and most loved writers explores the uncomfortable and tragicomic gap between people’s public appearance and their private desires in two tender and surprising stories. In The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson, a recently bereaved widow finds interesting ways to supplement her income by performing as a patient for medical students, and renting out her spare room. Quiet, middle-class, and middle-aged, Mrs. Donaldson will soon discover that she rather enjoys role-play at the hospital, and the irregular and startling entertainment provided by her tenants. In The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes, a disappointed middle-aged mother dotes on her only son, Graham, who believes he must shield her from the truth. As Graham’s double life becomes increasingly complicated, we realize how little he understands, not only of his own desires but also those of his mother. A master storyteller dissects a very English form of secrecy with two stories of the unexpected in otherwise apparently ordinary lives.
There are just two short stories (one might almost consider them novellas) in this collection and, as you might guess from the title, they do feature sexually explicit content. That being said, Bennett presents the risque in a tame and humorous way.
In "The Greening Of Mrs. Donaldson", 55 year old Mrs. Donaldson becomes a widow and soon finds that her husband did not leave her as financially secure as he led her to believe. To make ends meet a little more comfortably, Mrs. Donaldson rents out a spare room to a college-age couple. It is this couple who later directs her to a second source of income, working at the local college as an SP or "simulated patient" in scenarios presented to medical students in the classroom. Dr. Ballantyne, who runs the scenarios, finds himself developing a crush on Mrs. Donaldson.
The story then takes a bit of an odd turn when Mrs. Donaldson's renters come to her and admit they are struggling to come up with the rent money. They ask if they might come to an arrangement -- that arrangement being that the couple would have sex and let Mrs. Donaldson watch (their reasoning being that because she does the scenario classes at the college, she might have a medical / academic interest in watching ... I guess?) For some odd reason, she accepts this. The resulting night of "payment" is awkward to read (though some of Mrs. Donaldson's observations and the way she tries to maintain cool, nonchalant manner throughout are kinda funny!) but the incident does bring the widow out of her shell a bit.
There was some good and some bad with this story.
Good: I liked the issues Dr. Ballantyne brought up in his classes. If only all potential doctors were trained this way. In one patient scenario, Dr. Ballantyne has Mrs. Donaldson dress as a man but the student assigned to play out the scene keeps refering to her as a woman, even though in character, she insists she is a man who just came in because of some knee pain. Dr. Ballantyne points out that what they look like shouldn't matter, shouldn't be fixated on if it has nothing to do with the pain they want treatment for -- a given, you would think but so many could still use the reminder. There's also another class scenario where one SP acts out being the grown child of a patient with dementia. The "child" bemoans the fact that "I have to do everything for her." Again, Dr. Ballantyne slams down the hammer of truth, pointing out how mothers do not see helplessness in infancy as a crime, so why would dementia not be treated similarly -- a state of being out of the person's control.
So this was not my favorite of Bennett's writing but I still enjoyed it. And this story ends on a booknerdy note!
Then there's "The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes". I know the whole "LOL" thing is often used in our culture nowadays, but the first part of this story I honestly did find laugh out loud funny. Later on, the tone goes a little darker & edgier in subject.
Graham comes from a well-off family, and is sooo in love with himself. Full on Narcissus mode. Through his job in banking, he meets Betty, who is somewhat of a plain-jane but was recently orphaned and came into a huge amount of money as a result. They get to know each other and agree to marry, Graham thinking of the money, Betty reveling in this idea of "marrying out of her league". The night before the wedding, Graham's secret life is revealed. He is spending his "stag night" curled up in bed with a truck driver / gay prostitute.
After marriage, Graham continues a double life, still meeting up with the gay prostitute from time to time, but also sleeping with his wife (though he identifies himself as gay, at least at first). Early on in their relationship, he thinks he'll be repulsed with trying to have sex with Betty but turns out the experience gives him new sensations he's never had before.
He had the entirely pleasurable notion that he was cracking a safe. Though he never failed to effect an entry, the combination still remained a mystery.
The change in tone of the story as a whole comes when the gay lover decides to start blackmailing Graham. Then it turns into "how to outwit this guy".
With Bennett's writing in general, I love the little twists he puts on his endings, just in the last sentence or two that often make me gasp, laugh out loud or both! Because of the first story, I wasn't sure if I could rate this one above a three star, but I loved the second story so much it was definitely a four star read!