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The Mountain Lion

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Coming of age in pre-World War II California and Colorado brings tragedy to Molly and Ralph Fawcett in Jean Stafford's classic semi-autobiographical novel, first published in 1947. Torn between their mother's world of genteel respectability and their grandfather's and uncle's world of cowboy masculinity, neither Molly nor Ralph can find an acceptable adult role to aspire to. As events move to their swift and inevitable conclusion, Stafford uncovers and indicts the social forces that require boys to sacrifice the feminine in order to become men and doom intelligent girls who aren't pretty.

232 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1947

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About the author

Jean Stafford

87 books83 followers
Jean Stafford was an American short story writer and novelist, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford in 1970.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 144 reviews
Profile Image for Lark Benobi.
Author 1 book1,838 followers
September 30, 2020
Perfect, but also, perfectly upsetting.

This novel belongs on a very short shelf of novels written for adults that remind us of what a feral and terrifying experience it is to be a child.* I'm very unsettled just now at the power of Stafford's vision. I'm glad I'm not in total agreement with her nihilistic take on family life, because I wouldn't want to live that way. My relative faith in people, when compared with Stafford, doesn't keep me from recognizing this novel as a stunningly artful story, however bleak its view of humanity.

*Other novels I'd put beside this one, for their equally stark and unsentimental view of childhood:

The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers
What Maisie Knew by Henry James
A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead
Real Life by Adeline Dieudonné
Profile Image for Robin.
484 reviews2,617 followers
December 27, 2022
I knew (even without reading the Author's Note, which contains an apologia of sorts - and major spoiler - for the fate of one of the main characters) that The Mountain Lion would be brutal, right from the beginning.

I think it was the arresting visual I got in the first chapter: two siblings, happily ambling home from school because of nosebleeds, their faces and arms covered in blood. That isn't a sign of good things to come, is it?

Jean Stafford's book is arresting from beginning to end. Its heart beats to the awful drumbeat of alienation. I was almost immediately reminded of The Member of the Wedding. Both books are told from the point of view of a child in an unwelcoming, dangerous world. Both are stories of deep interiority and descriptive density which cause the reader to slow down and submit to an immersive experience.

The two siblings, Molly and Ralph, seem to have each other at the beginning. However as adolescence begins for Ralph, misanthropic Molly is left further and further behind. Meanwhile, there's a mountain lion pacing somewhere....

This is a gorgeous, devastating, and haunting book.
Profile Image for Mariel.
667 reviews1,053 followers
April 18, 2012
Jean Stafford's The Mountain Lion is an odd duck. I guess it's kind of like an ugly duckling that wants you to know that it considers itself just fine this way. Mythic fortelling of inner beauty. I have the impression that it is considered a coming of age story. Weeeell... It is the transformation of falling in with what is available to shin scraping the nearest available target for blame to falling in with the most desired available company. Broken appendages. Arms twisting and legs kicking. The heart is unattached. Ralph and his little sister Molly are the unfortunate disgraced runts in a family that knows what the right thing to say is. You won't hear it because you don't have to think about what it is. It's the 1940s and the right thing is being a man and being a girly girl. Their hero, their grandfather, has died. Common ground dusts his coffin.

The NYRB book jacket says that Molly and Ralph are "inseparable, in league with each other" and "And yet at the same time this other sphere, about which they are both so passionate, threatens to come between their passionate attachment to each other". This is not true. Theirs isn't the only description of this book that suggests this relationship. The Mountain Lion itself seems to want to say it was there. It's not. Molly was the only one who ever thought about Ralph. He resents her because she's always there and stands in his mind's way of new Ralph. Molly doesn't especially regard Ralph. It is that she disregards others so much. They don't know the words that she studies to have something over them. I didn't remember what Mark Twain's real name was either (I got most of the other references, though. I'm more well read than I thought, maybe). It would have been quite tragic if they had betrayed each other in this way. But they didn't. Molly is awkward to the rest of the world, at least as she knows it. She doesn't know how to magically transform herself into a pretty girl. She doesn't know how to swallow grief. She doesn't know how to stop expecting others to make her feel right about herself. If it doesn't fit with the image she sees in her head and doesn't have the resources to acknowledge then it is no use to her. She doesn't take in others. She wouldn't know them if she saw them. They have uses by a side.

Ralph, well, Ralph reminds me of my nemesis the Turtle. The Turtle barely passes for "normal". He's a young Mr. Burns from The Simpsons in appearance and hates absolutely everyone. The first time I met him he proceeded to bash the hell out of her sister because she found escapism in some sci-fi tv show (I don't know her but I wasted no time into launching a defense for her). Turtle isn't happy unless he is saying something that he thinks will hurt or get over on someone else. Somehow, though, Turtle passes for the kind of normal that people are unwilling to take a first look at. Background fodder. Your every day asshole. Nothing to see here. (I will forget about him when I no longer have to see him.) Things that I say are met with "You should be on medication" types of responses. I don't get it. What is so weird about me? I am with Molly on this. Some of us are born walking out of step with the rest of the don't look the first time world. I don't even know when I'm doing it.

If Molly and Ralph were ever close it was that they shared a don't look twice for other people. Mostly their stupid sisters. When their beloved grandfather dies (I wonder if he would have lived up to the idealized image if he had lived. Most likely not) he is shoes half filled by their mother's brother. Uncle Claude is supposed to be this big influence on Ralph. Ralph could have picked any macho asshole that looked like the Ralph he wanted to be. Uncle Claude may be resented for a time by Molly for "stealing Ralph". Ralph didn't have what it took for her either. He's coming of age into a garden variety asshole that doesn't think too much about stuff. Ralph's unease was sad to me. I should have this, this should be this way, it's your fault. It's a few colors shy of a prism, to me. Who could count on this as light in a dark tunnel?

What magical world? When Ralph feels frustrated in the sexual reciprocation he felt he was meant to have he takes it out on his little sister who happens to be the only one around. He asks her to tell him every dirty word he knows. Stafford leaves us with that this is where their childhood ends and their connection is severed. What connection? Isn't it just selection? Dirty words on a dark train ride going where? They are just words. Molly nearly burned her own hand off with acid out of an impulse. What else was Ralph to her but something she couldn't count as herself? He's another fatty, to her. That moment happened before this, I'm sorry. I don't know why Stafford thought that this could have made a difference. I also think that Stafford over-rated Molly's stare that saw all. She didn't. Stafford states too often in her book what is fact that isn't. If she was transforming she wouldn't have had to.

"And so, always at hand, would be Molly who could ruin him, blow up his world if she chose. He knew, but for no reason he could name, that she would do nothing so long as they were here, but in that bare wasteland where they were to live under the shadow of the trinity of fat men, he must guard himself against her weapon."

Joyce Carol Oates set the bar too high with her quote that it could be placed next to The Member of the Wedding. It's dangerous to me to invoke the name of the greatest book in the whole world! If Molly reminded me of anyone it was Fuchsia from Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy. Stafford is an odd duck. She got some of the ugliness right. She didn't get the beautiful part of the escape right. Did they want to go anywhere? I never felt they did. The last line is the black maid referring to the corpse of Molly as "white trash". Now that I'm thinking about Gormenghast (I had my books same as her) I'm thinking that Stafford probably thought of Molly's accidental death as the unintended suicide and she would have gone on living betrayed by her false play date. I don't know that it could have ended this way or another. All I see when I think of Molly and Ralph are two people who won't ever know how to deal with other people unless they confirm to their ideas of what they, Molly and Ralph, deserve to have. That's loneliness. Ugly, duckling, pretty. There should be more to lose. Brother, sister, listen.... Dirty words and fitting in. The tragedy of The Mountain Lion. Don't look twice. Didn't I tell you what my book was about?
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for James.
93 reviews95 followers
February 8, 2023
4.5 stars — This is for everyone who was ever a precocious, sensitive, melodramatic, and let's face it, sometimes harshly judgmental little brat growing up.

I've always been annoyed and perplexed by the way childhood gets sentimentalized in our culture. Sure, there's an "innocence" and perpetual sense of wonder when we're young. But for many of us - especially those born with more "sensitive" temperaments - childhood could be fraught with terror and peril around every corner. Peers could be crueler than many adults. And even for those born to semi-sane, well-intentioned parents, being totally vulnerable to their every whim and command was still a helpless and infuriating thing to experience. I shudder to imagine what it’s like for those not so lucky.

Best to go into this with a blank slate (do yourself a favor and save the spoiler-ish "Author's Note" for after you've finished), so I'll just vaguely state that this is the story of an intensely close but volatile relationship between Ralph Fawcett and his younger sister Molly, who are 10 and 8, respectively, when the novel begins. And it's probably one of the most brutally honest and immersive depictions of childhood and early adolescence that I've ever encountered in literature. Stripped ruthlessly bare of any and all sentimentality.

Reading this sometimes felt like browsing through my own admittedly melodramatic childhood journals, often in the most cringe-inducing and unflattering ways: The disgust and derision for one's parents and siblings and their myriad flaws. The comparisons made between grandparents and wildly differing family backgrounds and legacies. The clumsy nervousness of striking up a conversation with a grown-up one deeply admires and longs to befriend.

All of these experiences, and so many more, are captured with a shocking candor and authenticity I found both unnerving and exhilarating, like taking a time machine back to witness awkward, mortifying memories from my own youth.

Honestly, the first two-thirds or so were nearly flawless for me, capturing the wild mood swings and insecurities of early puberty with uncanny and poetic precision. But the final stretch loses some steam with all of the heavy-handed symbolism and foreshadowing. Jean Stafford is an astonishingly talented writer I'm thrilled to discover, but I do wish she'd shown a bit more subtlety and restraint in these climactic chapters. Instead, things felt self-conscious and contrived in a way that knocked this down slightly from what at one point I was certain would be a rare and enthusiastic 5 stars.

Still, this was a wonderfully weird, dementedly funny, and unforgettably haunting read that also happens to feature one of the very BEST last lines of any novel I've ever read. I literally snort-laughed out loud from the sheer, sadistic shock of it.
Profile Image for Diane Barnes.
1,253 reviews451 followers
March 30, 2020
Whoa! I was totally unprepared for that ending! Still processing that, but magnificent prose and powers of description leading up to it. English teachers would have a field day with the symbolism in this novel, and Stafford's ability to get into the mind of children and adolescents is uncanny. This book can be hard to find, but Library of America just issued a volume with 3 of her novels, so I am eagerly anticipating the other 2. Incredible.
Profile Image for Michelle.
75 reviews9 followers
July 24, 2014
Complicated (but told in a remarkably straightforward style), sad, strange, wise, and always compelling, The Mountain Lion is frequently categorized as a coming-of-age novel. But brothers, sisters, genteel mothers, portraits of dead grandfathers, the lingering scars of scarlet fever, and the limited use that a Colorado cattle ranch (or the west in general) has for a smart, artistic and sickly young girl-- all of these things add up to ensure that nobody ever really comes of age in this novel.

In 230 tightly controlled pages, Molly and Ralph, the two siblings at the center of the novel, leave early childhood and enter their teens. They span ages 8 to 14 and 10 to 16, respectively, and all of the adolescent anger and awkwardness of those years is acutely captured. That a breach forms and widens--at first very quietly, almost imperceptibly, and then by leaps and bounds--and eventually consumes Ralph and Molly's relationship is not in itself surprising or exceptional, but everything else about this novel is. If it must be classified above all as a coming-of-age novel, then it is a peerless one.

Never has an author stuffed me entirely back inside the mind of my 8-14-year-old self so completely that I catch my breath a little painfully. Not because I did or said the things that Molly did, but because I might have. There is Molly standing in front of a long mirror, exaggerating her buck teeth, calling "Clara" over and over again at her reflection, as if summoning a connection with her dead aunt whom Molly believes she resembles the most in a family (town, city, perceivable world) of people who look nothing like her. Molly has "a homemade look, a look of having been put together by an inexperienced hand." Molly regards her body, when she regards it at all, as a "long wooden box with a mind inside." Molly's evening bath ritual initially made me grin with its deliberate, kooky details, but mostly left me anguished with its portrayal of detachment, misanthropy (how it stings!), and loneliness. Both Molly and Ralph say and do things that are foreign in my personal history, yet keenly familiar in my psyche, returning me to an almost embryonic stage. The Mountain Lion is about childhood and adulthood and expectations and affectations lost and gained. It's an exploration of consciousness and what it means to be "made" by others as much as self-defined.

The novel opens with a bonded Molly and Ralph leaving school early with bloody noses--the aftermath of their bouts with scarlet fever. Walking home together, they indulge their equally wild imaginations and observe the adults around them with shared disdain. And they regard their physical weakness with a kind of pride. They revel in their separateness from others. But sudden familial death, and summers spent with their Uncle Claude on his ranch, ask and require different things of Molly and Ralph, chip away at their unified point of view. Eventually, the siblings are telling sharply different stories, or telling the same story with sharply different points of view, and it's all done by Stafford with such dispassionate (but never cold) grace. Returning from a hunt with his uncle, Ralph finds two buck skulls, tightly interlocked by the horns and wedged between two rocks in the river. He presents this to Molly as a gift. He knows Molly will see the art in this (and she does; she'll take pictures of it with her brownie), but we know that the deer are Ralph and Molly. We know that they're drowning, heads locked in battle, hearts buried somewhere back in Covina.

Stafford has a nose for tension. Orange groves, apples in the sitting room, the "sexless odor of her new white shirt," funeral flowers, acid on skin--these frequent encounters with smell never let the reader out of the stifling rooms and bodies inhabited by Ralph and Molly.

Besides, danger and death, always lurking, are always smelled by the mountain lion (and the careful reader) before it is seen or heard.
Profile Image for Tony.
906 reviews1,511 followers
October 27, 2020
This novel - about how Ralph was ten and Molly was eight when they had scarlet fever - was written in 1947, but in 1971 the author wrote an AUTHOR'S NOTE wherein she expressed her remorse for what she (the author) did to Molly in the book. That NOTE has forever been added to subsequent editions of the book, and as a foreword, kind of spoiling things for the reader. In truth, a lot of lamentable things happen to Molly through the course of the novel, but by the time the one big, bad thing happened to Molly, I yawned.

I liked Molly though. She was observant and had no filter. So she said things like: Nobody but a boob would want to be president. So, you know, timely.

This book has been praised a lot. As Molly would say: if you happen to like that sort of hogwash and soul-butter. I happen not to be the type. I also happen not to be the type.
Profile Image for Dax.
240 reviews110 followers
May 18, 2019
I was expecting a coming-of-age story set in the beautiful mountains of Colorado: a pleasant jaunt as two siblings battled the confusion of growing out of childhood. What we get instead is a disturbing story of two kids on different trajectories: one accepting the path to adulthood and the other clinging to childhood and the desire to isolate herself from humanity.

The writing is fantastic. Stafford can switch perspectives mid-sentence which I found to be a lot of fun. The ending is wholly unexpected but, in hindsight, unavoidable. After reading a little bit about Stafford, it sounds like there's a lot of her in Molly, which only makes this novel a little more disturbing. Good stuff.
Profile Image for aPriL does feral sometimes .
1,889 reviews428 followers
August 9, 2020
‘The Mountain Lion’ by Jean Stafford is a peculiar book! Until the last four pages, it seemed to be about the class division between those who think a lot about the Fine Arts and Philosophy and beautiful homes and clothes and manners and important people to know and then believe thinking and knowing about those things and buying a lot of expensive art and traveling to European museums and Asian slums elevates them above the common herd, and those who raise horses and cows and crops worrying about the weather and killing the wildlife that attacks farm animals and buying and fixing their tools of their trade of ranching and farming and who basically ARE the common non-readers men taking care of and are part of the common herd. Of course, maybe it’s about the Natural World vs. Civilization, too. The book was published in 1947.

However, the ending is a shocking one. Clearly the character of Molly, a mean antisocial wilding kid who is a brilliant but acerbic fourteen year old, together with the eponymous mountain lion are meant to be seen as spiritually one and the same. I think. So. I guess the book was really about Molly, and just Molly. What was the real message of the novel? Being a Molly-type person is truly being a thing not acceptable or fitting in anywhere.

The book appears to be a Bildungsroman. Then, it ends up being an author’s cynical and spiteful - self-hating? - Monty Python gag.

Those of you who have read it, what do you think?

Whatever. The writing is delightful. The Fawcett and Kenyon families are delineated brilliantly and convincingly.

Molly Fawcett and her brother Ralph, eight and ten respectively when the novel begins, are a team. They hate their lives and they do not fit in at school or with their family. They live in a suburb of Los Angeles California with their mother and two older sisters. Both Molly and Ralph barely survived scarlet fever. Both suffer from poor eyesight and nosebleeds and underdevelopment because of having been so sick. They have the same sense of humor and the same dour outlook on life. They are gloomy and depressed, Molly wants to be a writer someday. They both read a lot. Molly is plain, perhaps even ugly.

Their mother and two older sisters are on the same wavelength that we’d call the Feminine Principle, of 1947 - refinement, polite society, enhanced beauty, fine arts education, religion. They invite a pretentious minister over a lot, asking him for advice. Mr. Fawcett is gone or dead - it isn’t clear. Their living step-grandparent, Mr. Kenyon, a result of a second marriage of Mrs. Fawcett’s mother, is of another sort. I think he is the Masculine Principle of 1947. He has ranches in several midwestern states. He speaks of cows and horses, and agricultural markets of buying and selling, and weather. Horses are his principle transportation on his Colorado ranch. His conversation is only about ranching and weather.

Mr. Kenyon suggests Mrs. Fawcett send Molly and Ralph to his son’s Colorado ranch. Claude, Mr. Kenyon’s son, raises cattle and horses. Mrs. Fawcett is horrified. She is protective of her kids. She becomes faint at snakes, blood and bugs, fears which she has passed down to all of her children - she is not a fan at all of outdoor life, much less ranching. But Mr. Kenyon, who visits California yearly (and who distresses Mrs. Fawcett all of the time, she is fearful he might track Colorado cow shit over the house) suggests Claude’s ranch would toughen the two sickly kids.

Eventually, Molly and Ralph begin visiting Claude every summer. Ralph does toughen up, but Molly doesn’t. It causes an irreparable breach in their relationship.

Six years later, Ralph is noticing girls, and is falling in lust. He has stopped wearing his glasses and has filled out. He has embraced ranching life wholeheartedly. Molly is still thin, undeveloped and writes all of the time. She is even more caustic and original, an untamed intellect, different and isolated. She hates all things sexual. Ralph can’t stop watching the gelding of the bulls on the ranch.

Finally, Mrs. Fawcett tells Ralph and Molly they will stay at Claude’s ranch for a year. She and the two older girls are going on a world vacation - Europe, Egypt, Singapore, etc. Afterwords, Mrs. Fawcett intends to live in Connecticut while the two older girls attend women’s colleges.

Claude, who is thirty-six years old, is consumed with hunting. So is Ralph, who now knows how to shoot and he has begun to shoot small critters. Both are in competition to get a rarely seen mountain lion.

Hunting the lion will change everything. Cue the lightening and thunder....
Profile Image for gwayle.
661 reviews49 followers
March 23, 2011
Jean Stafford doesn't pull her punches in this California-Colorado coming of age. Awkward and sickly siblings Ralph and Molly are inseparable and co-dependent until they start to spend summers with their uncle Claude in Colorado, where Ralph pulls away from their insular, shared world in favor of the virile camaraderie of his uncle and his uncle's ranch hands. The author deftly alternates between the siblings' two viewpoints, and their thoughts and feelings have dream-like, breathtaking intensity, refracted through the strange and almost-familiar lens of childhood, with its infinite and simultaneous capacity for unbridled imagination, trenchant perception, and wildly off-the-mark misunderstanding. In some respects the short novel reminded me of A High Wind in Jamaica , which also involves child psychology, sibling relationships, profound misunderstanding, betrayal, and tragedy. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Sonya.
792 reviews144 followers
September 28, 2019
The Mountain Lion is a slim novel, bouncing back and forth between the two main characters, a brother and sister who are bonded together and seem throughout to be united in their contempt for other people, especially their mother and older sisters. The portrait of these characters is not to elicit sympathy, but to draw on the deep well of loneliness and a dawning realization of what growing up can mean. Most of the book takes place in the Colorado mountains during the 1930s; the children take dirty trains to visit their uncle there and are surrounded by people far removed from their mother's pristine, prissy sitting room and the fawning next-door minister who comments on their behavior incessantly. Stafford builds a world that contains the brutal practices of hunting and farming; peril lurks around every corner, but nothing in the outside world can rival the peril of the children's private thoughts. That's as much as I want to say about the book without giving up its mysteries. If you want to read it, go in as blindly as possible. Save any introductions for later, when you're ready.
Profile Image for Lea.
852 reviews177 followers
April 14, 2020
This isn't a coming of age story, even though it focuses on two siblings growing up/growing apart. I did not expect the sister to be quite so odd and I thought I'd like her and the brother more than I did. However, this is very well-written and engaging, quite unique, and I got very sad for the both of them. There were some passages that I felt the need to highlight and copy, which is always a good sign.

It's always cool to find more female authors from the past, and I definitely would like to read more of Jean Stafford.

As this is as book from 1947, there were a few words I didn't know. I had to google what a "donkey party" is (apparently just a party where you play the donkey game).

Profile Image for Kim.
81 reviews16 followers
August 24, 2015
This is a wonderful hidden gem -- I couldn't put it down. Luminous descriptions of sibling rivalry in the 1940s in a middle-class home in California and then on a cattle ranch in Colorado. Excellent portrayal of the inner drama of adolescence without any psychobabble. Straightforward writing, eminently readable, and totally unpretentious. This should be required reading for all high school seniors.
Profile Image for Steve.
359 reviews1 follower
July 29, 2021
Ms. Stafford’s work is consigned to obscurity, and for good reason; or put another way, I just didn’t like it. Two young siblings, Molly and Ralph, are sent to live with their Uncle Claude in rustic Colorado while their mother, Mrs. Fawcett, tours the world with her elder children, Rachel and Leah – if those last two names were an Old Testament reference in some way, the connection was lost on me. Despite flirtation with many of the important issues that plague adolescents, she left me feeling this was an ordinary effort, or even less.
Profile Image for Kelly_Hunsaker_reads ....
1,882 reviews45 followers
May 27, 2020
After reading Stafford's Pulitzer Prize winning collection of stories I went straight to my library's website and checked out the audiobook of this novel mainly because I live in a small town in the Colorado mountains and do not find many books that remind me of home. I see this one labeled a coming of age story often, but nobody comes of age so I believe that is wrong. This is a very adult book about children and the difficulties of childhood.

The Mountain Lion tells the story of a brother and sister over two years of their lives, ages 8 to 10 and 14 to 16. Stafford allows them to be fully fledged children and teens, who act with impulsivity, react with anger and show all the awkwardness of life at those ages. Often authors make children appear too young or too old, but Stafford wrote them with loving attention and detail. She seemed to be very in touch with how the young think and feel.

Ralph and Molly begin the book as the best of friends. They loved doing everything together and I actually found their relationship a bit too perfect and unrealistic. But when they must go live in Colorado with their Uncle Claude their lives begin to change and they begin to grow apart. They compete. They irritate one another. They separate. Soon they are living vastly different lives and telling different stories.

And as it happened my heart broke alongside Molly's. She was desperately sad and angry at Ralph. She missed his attention. And while she longed for his love and friendship, I grieved for her loss. However, their lost relationship is expected, and normal, and I found the book richer, truer and more real as it happened.

There were brilliant, emotional and vivid moments that pushed me back in time to those days of my own childhood when I so desired to be prettier, sportier, funnier... when I sort of hated everything about the girl in the mirror. Molly's loneliness and anguish are familiar, and caused me to hold my breath and squint my eyes, trying to hold back the tears. She made me revisit some of the things that caused me the most pain in my own childhood. And while emotional and melancholy I left it feeling renewed and rehabilitated.

The ending of this little novel is brutal and melancholic but also the perfect wrap-up to this story.
Profile Image for Annie.
923 reviews311 followers
March 7, 2020
----------GENERAL THOUGHTS----------

Wow, what a remarkably freaky little book.

In the beginning, it has a quaint, old-timey, homespun feel—like Mark Twain, or the Boxcar Children books.

… and then it doesn’t. In any way. Suddenly there’s sex and incestuous thoughts and death and just really fucked up, Kafkaesque distortions of the flesh. It’s *great.*

-------------PLOT SUMMARY-------------

Ralph (10) and Molly (8) are the two youngest of the Fawcett family: they have two older sisters, Leah and Rachel (who are snobby jerks), as well as a mother (their father has been dead all their lives). The Fawcetts live in Los Angeles and are apparently quite wealthy despite their fatherless state (perhaps family money)—they have a gardener, a driver, a laundress, and a cook.

Ralph and Molly are best friends--unlike the rest of their family, they’re both a little odd, very awkward, stubborn and rebellious, with a distinct flair for the dramatic, and an identical sense of humour. But as they’re growing older they’re beginning to learn they dislike certain aspects of each other. Ralph, for instance, is weary of his little sister always copying him and always acting like she’s a boy like he is and embarassing him by saying strange things in public.

At this time, their grandfather (stepgrandfather, really) Grandpa Kenyon passes away while visiting them in California. Grandpa Kenyon’s son, Claude (their half-uncle) comes to California for the funeral, and to meet his nephew and nieces for the first time. Ralph and Molly persuade their mother to let Claude take them back to his ranch in Colorado for the summer (a ranch that belonged to Grandpa Kenyon before his death).

They grow even more apart there. Claude laughs at their blunders (he’s not cruel, and is often kind to the children, but he doesn’t censor himself when he finds something funny). He seems to respect the daughter of his housekeeper, a 14yo girl named Winifred who helps him run the ranch, far more than Ralph and Molly. While this spurs Ralph on to become less soft, less California, more of a “man” who can gain Claude’s respect, it drives Molly away from Claude’s presence. Ralph learns to abhor anything citified, or anything that might suggest he himself is a city slicker (like his mother’s family, including Molly). The siblings spend less and less time together.

Molly with her ugly face and her lankiness and the slouching, round-shouldered gait which she had developed and which caused her enemies to call her ‘the crab.’ there was something wrong with her and while Ralph still loved her, he wished oftener and oftener that she did not exist.

Over the next several years, the children return to spend every summer at Claude’s ranch in Colorado, while spending the rest of the year in their sanitized Los Angeles suburb. Ralph begins to go through puberty and finds himself unendingly fascinated with things like sex and the way cows give birth and the difference between stallions and geldings; he fantasizes about Winifred and even, disturbingly, about his sisters Leah and Rachel.

Only Molly is safe from his lust because of her homeliness. Until one year, on their train to Colorado from California, they’re going through a dark tunnel; Ralph asks Molly what dirty words she knows, and—I think, it’s not explicit—masturbates secretly in the dark; from that point onward both of their childhoods end. For Ralph, after that, even Molly is soiled by what he views as his dirtiness, even though he is not attracted to her. The tunnel takes on a huge significance for both of them; Molly will reference “the tunnel” in the company of others when she wants to threaten Ralph, and for Ralph, he sees the tunnel “as an apotheosis of his own black, sinful mind.”

By contrast, even as she grows up, Molly has deep-seated body horror that approaches Kafka’s. She views herself as “a long wooden box with a mind inside,” and any reminder she has a corporeal fleshy body horrifies her (she can’t even hear the word “body” aloud without shuddering). When people (her siblings, classmates, etc.) try to explain or hint at what sex is, or how babies are made, or even the difference between geldings and stallions, she refuses to listen or believe it (she regularly says she’s marry Ralph, or the neighbor’s dog, or her Uncle Claude, to the horror of listeners who don’t realize she, at 12, doesn’t understand what marriage involves; she insists that the difference between stallions and geldings is that they’re two different breeds of horses).

By the time Molly is twelve and Ralph is fourteen, Molly gets stranger and sadder. When her mother says, “Sometimes I think you’re happier at Claude’s ranch than you are with us,” Molly says, “I do not believe in happiness.”

On another occasion, Molly gets angry at Ralph’s distance and pours a bottle of sulfuric acid on her hand to punish him, and almost loses her hand.

When she is feeling self-contemptuous, to prove to herself that she’s not “a crybaby,” she puts a mouse in a bottle of water and watches it drown, “rejoicing brutishly in the swimming and the squealing.”

She feels she has no connection to anyone, other than to her father, who died before she knew him, and to her Grandpa Kenyon, who she was beginning to feel was the only one to ever understand her. She roams the snowy mountains alone, fulfilling strange projects she sets for herself.

Meanwhile, by the time Molly is fourteen and Ralph is sixteen, Ralph and Claude become obsessed with hunting a beautiful mountain lioness they dub Goldilocks. They make a pact not to shoot her unless they’re together. Claude wants to shoot her out of a combination of sheer obsession and hatred; Ralph wants her because of her beautiful golden coat, which makes him forget the incident in the tunnel with Molly and all the dirty thoughts he’s had in general.

Fun, right?


I would be remiss in this review if I didn’t note the blatant racism that made it difficult to enjoy the book at times (admittedly, this was published in 1947, but Lillian Smith, also a white woman, wrote Strange Fruit three years earlier decrying racism and featuring an interracial romance, so the era’s no excuse).

So, buyer beware. Words such as “darky,” “Jap,” “coon,” the n-word, and other highly offensive terms appear. A black character’s hands are compared to a monkey’s paw. It’s bad. I expect more of my authors no matter the era. Ergo the three stars. It would otherwise have been a 4 or 5 star book.
Profile Image for Amy.
276 reviews4 followers
November 24, 2016
Flat declarative writing that somehow manages to be sharply photographic a the same time. Someone said this is a 'not coming-of-age' tale. Someone else talks about the absence of 'psychobabble' in the observations of these developing children. Ditto.

Captivated by sentences like "The smoke from Winifred's cigarette went straight up and then opened out into a horn like a blue lily." and "Once out in the bright green meadows of the valley he thought he would be safe from the thoughts that swarmed about him like a dream of reptiles."

Transported by this dark tale of doomed children that in other hands might have bordered on the gothic, but in Stafford's clear dispassionate voice has the supersaturated aspect of a hypnotic reality that compels attention.
Profile Image for Sasha.
108 reviews101 followers
November 23, 2011
Jean Stafford‘s introduction to her 1947 novel, The Mountain Lion, closes with: “Poor old Molly! I loved her dearly and [spoiler spoiler spoiler].” That never augurs well. You begin the novel wary of tragedy, anticipating brokenness and all-around disaster. That you feel, even within the first few pages, that it shall all lead to you bawling in a shady corner. I know I let out one of those hoarse/squeaky screams in a crowded train when I reached the book’s end. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, aren’t we, Miss Stafford?

The novel opens with brother and sister, Ralph and Molly Fawcett, let out from school early, nursing dual-nosebleeds. They share the aftereffects of scarlet fever, which they both suffered through–Ralph and Molly look identical, act the same, are both sensitive and bookish and keep to themselves, are intolerant of the same fussy adults, bound together against the rest of the world. There’s something touchingly symbolic about this bond through nosebleed, but more so, I couldn’t help–even at this first handful of sentences–but feel nervous. Blood makes me queasy. The image of two children walking home with chronic nosebleeds–often striking them simultaneously–I find cute [but I am strange]. But yes, it made me nervous.

It’s a coming-of-age story, one distinct of its treatment of two childhoods. It’s more than seeing Ralph and Molly grow up and, as we expect, grow their own ways: What Stafford chooses to focus on is how they splinter. We’re witness to how a seemingly indestructible bond falters due to your usual reasons: Ralph and Molly need to strike their own paths. Whereas once they were united against the world, against its tragedies, against the more frivolous members of their families–this unity falls apart. A steadfast love turns into adolescent annoyance, hinting at a possibly intense hatred.

A death in the family spurs this splintering, and it’s not noticeable early on: They simply have different ways of dealing with their grief. Ralph’s introspection leads him to desire more of the outside world. Molly’s thoughts acquire this morose and bitter edge. The differences are compounded by their visits to their Uncle Claude’s ranch in Colorado. The landscape gives Ralph the opportunity to be a man–he has grown up with three sisters, and a fussy mother, a father gone too soon. Molly grows more awkward, too serious for her age. Too aware and stubborn of her differences to be called precocious. It’s heady, it’s symbolic. And there’s a trace of unease seeing these two fall apart. A sadness. And, yes, that nervousness again.

It’s a compelling story–this from a girl who doesn’t have a lot of coming-of-age novels in her bookshelves. Emotions run high–the intensity of childhood, of adolescence!–and Stafford takes advantage of this: She can be ruthless: Stafford can be ruthless: "Molly was not only ugly, she had a homemade look, a look of having been put together by an inexperienced hand." As ruthless as Molly, who keeps a list of Unforgivables [a list that alarmingly grows in number].

Stafford can be surprisingly tender too: The discovery of adulthood, almost as if you’ve only stumbled upon it–"He whirled round and round in his rapid love; it pricked him on the breastbone like a needle. He wanted to be shut up in a small space to think about it. He wanted to grab it and eat it like an apple so that nobody else could have it."

I think what makes it compelling is how calm it can be, despite that faithfulness to those high emotions. [Remember when a text reply that took two minutes too long in coming would make you want to wail, Sasha?] It’s eerie, how controlled Stafford is, how she delineates between her characters so well–Everything is necessary, not a word out of place. It’s all so organic, all the symbols moving toward that must-happen ending. Spoiler or no spoiler from the author herself, there’s something intrinsically base about that penultimate scene that it’s perfect for the novel. And no, I didn’t see that coming. But that wariness was always there, Something bad’s going to happen. It did. One moment you’re watching Ralph and Molly splinter, the next, whoomp.

The verdict? I screamed in a crowded train, on my commute home. That’s, like, ya know, major. And annoying. But yeah. There.


Review from August 2010
Profile Image for Featherbooks.
489 reviews
February 20, 2019
The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford is stunning in terms of prose and story in its beautiful evocation of California and Colorado settings, but most memorably in relating the disgust of children for adults. When her brother's lascivious remark passes the line from childhood to adulthood, ("he has literally beat a rivet of hatred into my heart by a remark he passed on the train today") ten-year-old Molly, two years younger than Ralph, despises him and their special bond is broken. Molly is a fantastic character supposedly based on Stafford, a writer, a misanthrope filled with hatred for herself and others, witty and mean, and a smart aleck " [Molly}returned her cup to the tea wagon and said, “If you will pardon me, this is the pause in the day’s occupation which is known as the children’s hour.”), who seeks funds from the president for a typewriter and collects hibernating ladybugs to send to the university for scientific explanation.
"Ralph's childhood and his sister's expired at that moment of the train's entrance into the surcharged valley. It was a paradox, for now they would be going into a tunnel with no end, now that they had heard the devil speak."
The landscape descriptions are alive.
"There was a silence. Studebaker and Falcon had calmed down now and were cropping side by side in the middle of the meadow. It was not really silent; there was a steady undercurrent of the noises of the land, bu they were so closely woven together than only a sudden sound, like the short singing of a meadowlark, made you realize that everywhere there was a humming and a rustling. And, then, the separate sound, the song or a splashing in the river, was like a bright daub on a dun fabric."
"They saw the mountain lion standing still with her head up, facing them, her long tail twitching. She was honey-colored all over save for her face which was darker, a sort of yellow -brown. They had a perfect view of her, for the mesa there was bare of anything and the sun illuminated her so clearly that it was as if they saw her close up. She allowed them to look at her for only a few seconds and then she bounded across the place where the columbines grew in summer and disappeared among the trees."
I keep finding the best books already on my shelves.
Profile Image for Sutter Lee.
126 reviews17 followers
December 5, 2015
It's been 20 years since I read this, after a friend lent me his copy, with praise for Stafford as his favorite novelist. I then read some of her other novels and short stories, but cannot recall which ones. I've been unable to remember her name, only Jean, and a title with the word Lion. I wrote to him last night (he's in his early 80s, so thank goodness he's still alive and has all his marbles (I knew he was/did -- is/does) and he immediately wrote back. What I really remember is Stafford's incredible VOCABULARY. More extensive than any writer I've come across. Somewhere in my piles of notes and notebooks I have about three pages of words I was not familiar with. And yet she used these words so casually, not pretentiously. I need to re-read her works along with others I've not read; will see what the library has. My friend (a jazz musician, Charlie Shoemake) also said she had a tragic life, so I just looked at her bio on Wikipedia, and learned her first husband was poet Robert Lowell. Also read that The Mountain Lion was semi-autobiographical. Also read that she was extremely disfigured after an auto accident, but yet to find when that occurred. And, alas, she suffered from depression and alcoholism. I was happy to noticed here on Goodreads that people are still reading her work and she's made it to some recommended reading lists for some studies on women authors, etc. (Sorry, my "enter" key is tweaked, so no paragraphs here.)
Profile Image for Janet.
191 reviews35 followers
November 25, 2014
The two children that are the main characters of this book are so emotionally disturbed that it was sometimes hard to relate to them. Also, since this book was written in the 1940's some of the racially derogatory words were problematical and made the book seem dated. However, the ending, which I won't divulge, came as such a surprise that I gave the book 4 stars.
Profile Image for Elizabeth.
15 reviews10 followers
September 6, 2008
Jean Stafford, another dark genius who should be read widely. She nails the awkwardness of adolescence and the changing relationship of a misfit sister and brother. I will take the image of a pair of ram skulls locked at the antlers to my grave.
Profile Image for Cor T.
358 reviews7 followers
August 16, 2020
Referenced so many times on the New York Times Book Review podcast that I had to give it a try.

The coming-of-age story is about the two younger children of a domineering widow, whose husband died before the youngest was born. They were raised in early 1930s suburban Los Angeles, in a household of women - their mother, Mrs. Fawcett, her cook, and their two older sisters - but the story is about father figures and what makes a man. The Fawcett household is dominated by a portrait of Grandfather Bonney, Mrs. Fawcett's revered father. Ralph and Molly are told that Grandfather Bonney is all that a man should be - cultured, refined, a gentleman - and yet the only grandfather they know personally is Mr. Kenyon, their mother's stepfather, who is the opposite of Grandfather Bonney - a self-made roughneck rancher from Colorado. The story takes off at the occasion of Mr. Kenyon's annual visit, openly dreaded by both adults but the highlight of Ralph and Molly's year, as they see themselves as different from their family and more like Grandpa and his manly son Claude. Ralph and Molly are inseparable as children, bonded by having scarlet fever at 10 and 8, and being physically marked and socially isolated by the experience.

The Mountain Lion is about how siblings can be at once vulnerably dependent and harshly cruel in a struggle for survival even among themselves. By the story's end, Ralph's adolescent self-loathing is palpable and destructive, as is his resentment for his awkward 8th-grade sister, who still desperately seeks his approval.

He looked at his weedy sister with dislike as she crouched on her heels, plucking the lilies all around her, and when she looked up at him, her large humble eyes fondling his face with lonely love, he wanted to cry out with despair because hers was really the only love he had and he found it nothing but a burden and a tribulation. She kept a diary in which she recorded everything he said and everything he did and she insisted on reading each entry to him before they went to bed. At first he had been flattered but now he was only embarrassed.

Now do I understand the NYT reviewer's obsession with this book? One review called this "the most bracing and sorrowful re-immersion into childhood's waters that I ever hope to encounter"- that is my feeling as well, though it makes me more sad than inspired to read more of this author's work.

PS With appreciation for the unusual vocab words: scalawag, captious, pongee, crepuscular, oleaginous, bas bleu, blatherskite
Profile Image for Rose.
395 reviews30 followers
July 20, 2020
Portrait of the artist as a young woman. And man, was she effed-up. So judgmental, so mean, so brilliant. Like Jean Stafford in her own youth, Molly Fawcett has one friend, her brother. At first Molly and Ralph are soul twins, though he is slightly more conventional and begins to chafe at her oddness. For a while, she cares for nothing but him, yet she seems to feel that her vocation, to be a writer, demands much of her from a very early age. The children live in a California household that Molly derides as “bourgeois,” which it clearly is. The pomposity and superficiality of the early-twentieth-century American upper middle class is familiar territory – Sinclair Lewis and Booth Tarkington covered it – but Stafford defamiliarizes it with humor, with Molly’s strangeness, and with the addition of a couple of unexpected characters, the Kenyons, the children’s grandfather and his son Claude, who are ranchers based in Colorado. Ralph worships Grandfather Kenyon for his authenticity. One of those neurotic, over-sensitive boys, he longs to be a real man, to escape the stifling company of his widowed mother and two older sisters. As he grows into adolescence, a handsome boy where Molly is merely a “tall, pale monkey,” his dawning, guilt-obsessed sexuality drives a rift between them.

Among the many pleasures of this novel, alongside the gorgeous descriptions of the post-frontier American West and the apt and funny social takedowns, is its unflinching revelations of the interiority, the souls, of this tragic brother and sister.

Profile Image for Kellyzen.
104 reviews14 followers
August 17, 2019
I did not necessarily like this book but I respected it a lot. (I have a hard time with any book that is rugged or western in general -- maybe because I am an liberal East Coast elite? -- so my lack of emotional connection is perhaps not surprising. I do have an affinity for well-drawn and deeply unlikable characters, though, which this book delivered in spades.) Whatever your literary preferences, this is undeniably a very well-crafted and masterfully written book. I'm glad I read it even though my own shortcomings in taste made it less enjoyable than it could've been.
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