Mary Lavin (1912–1996) was an Irish short story writer and novelist. Her work often featured feminist issues and concerns, and she is considered to be a pioneer. Born in East Walpole, MA, she moved to Ireland with her family at the age of ten, and later attended Loreto College, a convent school in Dublin, before studying English and French at University College Dublin (UCD). In 1943, Mary Lavin married William Walsh, a Dublin lawyer, and also published her first book, Tales from Bective Bridge, a collection of short stories about life in rural Ireland. She was widowed in 1954, after she had achieved considerable success as a writer (she received numerous honors and awards), and was left with a farm and three children to take care of. Although she wrote two long novels, she was partial to short stories, and wished she could break her novels up into short stories. Mary Lavin felt that it was in the short story that "a writer distills the essence of his (or her) thought", that the short story "is determined by the writer's own character", and that short-story writing is "only looking closer than normal into the human heart. . . ."
In a Café by Mary Lavin is a short story about a meeting in a café that highlights her talents as a writer. Set in Dublin, Ireland, this story begins in a back street cafe run by two students from the Art College (who often leave the place unattended, to have coffee in a café across the street). The story is astonishing in its ability to convey the inner life of the main character, Mary, a widow, who's meeting with a recently widowed, younger acquaintance, Maudie. In this café, while Mary waits nervously for Maudie, she meets and converses briefly with Johann van Stiegler, a young artist (with plump hands that fascinate her, and that are unlike her deceased husband's slender hands). She's surprised and pleased and unsure about Johann's interest in her, all at the same time. The artist provides the address of his flat (which is also his studio) on a piece of notebook paper, and invites Mary to come and see his work anytime, although it's Maudie who takes the paper from him and hands it to Mary. (I will say no more about the plot because I don't want to spoil the story for potential readers.)
This is a remarkable story about two meetings in a café: Mary meets Johann by chance while waiting for Maudie. A visit to a cafe may sound like a simple, ordinary occurrence, but the author transforms it into a larger event by presenting the emotional life of the protagonist, Mary, in an uncannily realistic and believable manner. Mary compares herself to Maudie (who is young and attractive enough to remarry), and feels old and dowdy in comparison--and lonely. She find herself drawn to the artist, and yet she is also thinking about and remembering her deceased husband, Richard. Mary Lavin depicts many varied human emotions in this short story through the innermost thoughts of Mary, including love, worry, resentment, guilt, despair, loneliness, and hope. In a Café is a marvelous example of short fiction by Mary Lavin. It's somewhat autobiographical in that both the author and the protagonist were widows named Mary who had farms and children to take care of. I read this story in my book, Women & Fiction, a terrific source of short fiction by women.
Special thanks to Mel from The Reading Life for hosting Irish Short Story Week for the second consecutive year.