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Green Water, Green Sky by Mavis Gallant

Hosted By Elliott Holt

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Mavis Gallant is one of my favorite writers, and although she is primarily known for her short stories—she published 116 of them in the New Yorker—I love her two novels as well. Green Water, Green Sky, Gallant's debut, is a book about memory, family, and the meaning of home. Set in Venice, Paris, and Cannes, it follows a family of American expatriates, one of whom has a breakdown. Green Water, Green Sky is an episodic novel in four sections (interconnected stories, if you will) which display Gallant's masterful shifts in narrative perspective and her visceral exploration of displacement and exile.

Elliott Holt

is the author of the novel You Are One of Them, a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice and finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award. Her essays, book reviews, and short stories have appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Time, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. Her fiction has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, as well as fellowships from Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony. She was born and raised in Washington, D.C., and has lived in Moscow, London, Amsterdam, Paris, and New York.

Mavis Gallant

(1922–2014) was a Canadian writer who spent much of her later life in Paris. Best known for her short stories, she is also the author of two novels. Her numerous literary honors include the 2004 PEN/Nabokov Award. 

Daily Reading

Day 1

August 20, 2020 | Chapter 1

The novel’s epigraph is from As You Like It, and the quote foregrounds the tension between the idea of "home" and traveling. Where is "home"? Gallant's expatriate characters aren't sure. As an American who spent years living abroad, I can relate.

Day 2

August 21, 2020 | Chapter 2 through the break

Gallant begins this chapter in Bonnie’s point of view. “She had left her country between the end of the war and the onslaught of the New Look…” (Christian Dior’s New Look debuted in February 1947.)

Day 3

August 22, 2020 | Reading: Chapter 2 through the break on p. 306 to the break on p. 315

“Bonnie was not offended. Possibly she had always wanted this.” There’s comedy and pathos in that “possibly,” which suggests that Bonnie is never quite sure what she wants. She’s afraid of going too deep into her own psyche.

Day 4

August 23, 2020 | Reading: Continue Chapter 2, from p. 315 to the break on p. 321

Mavis Gallant was born & raised in Montreal but moved to Paris in 1950 and stayed. In this interview with Jhumpa Lahiri in Granta, Gallant admits that when she first arrived in Paris, she “didn’t like it at all.”

Day 5

August 24, 2020 | Reading: Finish Chapter 2

August in Paris is empty and quiet. Alone in the apartment, after everyone has gone away on vacation, Flor closes all the shutters. (The same shutters that Bonnie opened, letting in the present.)

Day 6

August 25, 2020 | Reading: Chapter 3 to break on p. 349

Chapter 3 starts in the point of view of a new character: Wishart. Gallant makes her reader work. It takes a few pages to understand that this chapter rewinds two years, to the summer when Flor meets Bob Harris in Cannes.

Day 7

August 26, 2020 | Reading: Finish Chapter 3

Gallant is mordantly funny as she describes the striving Wishart and snobby Bonnie, + their mutual disappointment when their masks fall away.

Day 8

August 27, 2020 | Reading: Chapter 4 to the end

George is now 19 and visiting Paris, just a few weeks after the events of chapter 2. When he observes a ring on Bob’s finger and thinks, “Perhaps it had belonged to Harris’s wife,” it seems that Flor is, as we suspected in Chapter 2, dead.

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