The Birthday Present and Other Surprises
In Andrea Lee’s story The Birthday Present a woman gives her husband the gift of two prostitutes for his birthday – this however is not the main attraction of the story. The main attraction of the story is how Lee breeds together form and movement in her story. She gives the characters nuances in movement, especially seen in the wife’s character. Lee’s story evolves the relationship of a ‘prudish American’ (who wants to make her Italian husband and his best friend think of her as more than capable of being progressive about sex) with her Italian husband, but the story is more than that. Lee develops a strong sense of identity in this African American woman, Ariel.
Although Lee lacks the depth of characterization of Toni Morrison, she does deliver a landscape such as only Hemingway, in all of his male ego, could have envisioned. She shares with the reader details about Italy, and about her husband’s bed. In the conversation between Ariel and her husband’s best friend he tells her that she should be impressed by Lombard’s faithfulness to her because he was such a womanizer with his first wife. It is this omission from the man that permits Ariel to want her husband to see her as anything but a prude (a rather one-dimensional characterization but one that fits well into the plot) and thus the prostitutes come into play. Lee’s story gives sex with details, relationships with no triumph at the end or real progression in character but she does give Ariel a certain amount of strength, of being open-minded and in the end, the reader cannot help but think that Ariel is in control of the situation and it is she who permits her husbands’ ‘dalliances’.
Lee, Andrea. Interesting Women: Stories. Random House. New York. 2003.