What the Maiden Saw

Julie Orringer's celebrated debut trolls the brink between childhood and adulthood.

Julie Orringer’s poise suggests a gentle soul; she can give the impression that the hardest thing about her is the g in her last name, which people prefer to mispronounce, softly, like a child’s ad-libbed adjective: This crayon is too red; I wanted something oranger. But the more correct mnemonic, ore-ringer, would liken her to a piece of raw rock, and that just doesn’t suit her at all.

Talking with Orringer on the phone, you can sometimes hear her smile, even if smiling makes no sound. Her short stories work that way, too: You can feel something in them without actually seeming to read it.

This starts to explain the several literary prizes this thirty-year-old San Franciscan has already accumulated, and the acceleratedly giddy buzz among her publicists, to whom next-big-things are business as usual.

Orringer’s celebrated first collection, How to Breathe Underwater, explores the wobbly threshold between adulthood and youth, where the idioms of each can become opaque and menacing. She has solace to offer, by writing with dignified adult calm about the ghastliest and loveliest agitations of preadult life.

Midway through “The Smoothest Way Is Full of Stones,” when the protagonist confides, “Even though I know she’s ready to betray me, her presence is a comfort in the dark,” so many of adolescence’s brutal epiphanies come to mind, and clench the gut.

“Don’t bother imagining your funeral, with your classmates in black clothes on a treeless stretch of lawn,” counsels the literally omniscient narrator of “Note to Sixth-Grade Self.” “If you die you will not be there to see it, and your classmates probably won’t be either.”

The story typifies Orringer’s composure — it’s affirmative and without illusions, but not without humor: “The next day, watch out. You will pay for that moment with Eric. Wear pants, for God’s sake.” This second-person imperative voice is the ideal experiment for the author’s purposes; at once it laments and employs the necessary delay of insight.

As it happens, the delay of insight is a fair index by which to measure Orringer’s professional growth.

“When I first learned that the book was going to be published,” she says, “I was really kind of frightened. My process of figuring out how to write — my homework, in a way — was suddenly going to be out there on the page.” Now whenever she reads from her book, as she will October 16 at her neighborhood store, the Booksmith on Haight Street, “I almost feel as if I’m looking at this album of old photos, seeing where I was as a writer. … It’s humbling to think about how much farther I would like to go.”

Orringer comes from a family full of doctors and scientists, and remembers feeling pressure to join their ranks.

“I became very jealous of my friends that were studying the fine arts,” she recalls. “I told my parents, and they confessed that they had known it all along.”

Now she teaches fiction at Stanford, where she won a Stegner Fellowship in 1999. “It wasn’t until the fourth time I applied that I got in,” she says. “I feel like there was something really important about that rejection, too. The more roadblocks that were thrown in my way as a young writer, the more I felt I had to do better, and read more, and read more widely, and think more carefully about what I was reading.”

Orringer was described recently by her friend Vendela Vida in the online magazine Slate as “the kind of person who will read the Audubon Field Guide to Northern California and War and Peace in the same sitting.” Vida’s novel, And Now You Can Go, was also just released by Knopf, and the publisher has sent the two young authors out on tour together.

“With Orringer as my travel companion, I feel prepared and protected against any danger,” Vida wrote. “Surely she will come armed with whatever’s needed: sunscreen, an extra jacket, a flare gun.”

“I kinda like to be prepared for stuff,” Orringer muses. “I’ve thought a lot about this. I think that when I was growing up there was a lot of uncertainty. I think the tendency just became to try and be in control where I could and to try to plan ahead when I could.”

To clarify: Orringer was born in Miami, and grew up in Boston, New Orleans, and Ann Arbor, before going to college in Ithaca and graduate school in Iowa City. She moved to San Francisco in 1996. When she was ten, her mother developed breast cancer. When she was twenty, her mother died.

Orringer’s stories often elucidate dramas of unsteadiness and outsiderhood, and confront the enormity of a parent’s terminal illness. When she read one, “Pilgrims,” to high-school students this summer, she fretted.

But “a student came up to me afterwards and was in tears,” she says, with characteristic mildness. “I hugged this girl, and I knew what she was going to say: ‘It felt like you understood what I was going through.’ I can’t imagine anything better than that. That’s what books did for me when I was a kid.”

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