Let me tell you something about providence. A few days after the announcement that The Short Story Station will be reading Yiyun Li’s A Sheltered Woman for October, I saw a copy of the New Yorker issue in which A Sheltered Woman first appeared. It did seem like a very good omen, if you’re the kind who looks for and believes them, especially because Yiyun Li is one of my favorite short story writers. Her story, Immortality, is still one of the best short stories that I have ever read.
The premise of A Sheltered Woman is simple. Auntie Mei, our protagonist, makes a loving out of being a nanny to newborn children and their mothers. She takes care of the children and of the mother for a few weeks, makes sure that they get settled in, and then moves on to the next client after a few weeks. All in all, she has taken care of more than a hundred children, each child carefully notated in a notebook that she bought at a yard sale.
“On the placemat sat a bowl of soybean-and-pig’s-foot soup that Auntie Mei had cooked, as she had for many new mothers before this one.Many, however, was not exact. In her interviews with potential employers, Auntie Mei always gave the precise number of families she had worked for: a hundred and twenty-six when she interviewed with her current employer, a hundred and thirty-one babies altogether.”
The story divides itself between the present and the past, between the story of Aunti Mei’s current client, a girl named Chanel who is suffering from post-partum depression and willfully negligent of her baby, and the story of Auntie Mei’s past and the women, here mother and grandmother, that shaped her. The temporal shifts serves an important role in the story as it explains the fact as to why Auntie Mei feels little compassion for Chanel and her predicaments and the driving force to her refusal to feel sympathy for her client. We go back in time and see that both her mother and grandmother sheltered her from the outside world, effectively honing a philosophy that doesn’t find it important to cultivate emotional ties.
If knowing someone makes that person stay with you forever, not knowing someone does the same trick: death does not take the dead away; it only makes them grow more deeply into you.
Her grandmother left her grandfather, spending her life in hiding and living with a man only a few houses away from her husband, then her mother threatened to poison herself while Auntie Mei was still a child in her womb unless the father left them for good. These are the women who raised Auntie Mei and convinced her that getting attached to people isn’t necessary for attachment can cause pain and suffering.
Why then is Chanel and her child different? Auntie Mei, in the course of the story, finds herself getting attached to Chanel, her baby, and even Paul, her clients’ all-around handyman. Still, she does her best to alienate herself from the people around her in order to protect herself from the complications of relationships.
A Sheltered Woman is another in the long line of stories that Yiyun Li has written about relationships and alienation. Only this time, Yiyun Li has taken it to its extremes by showing a woman that is adamant in not forming emotionally substantial relationships even though her subconscious clearly desires it. A wonderful, heartbreaking story that doesn’t offer any resolution, only questions, and isn’t that what great storytellers do?