‘Miss Forbes’s Summer of Happiness’ by Gabriel García Márquez, translated by Edith Grossman

Forget ‘magical realism’, a term he neither invented nor embraced, Gabby does gothic best (or if you insist, ‘magical realism noir’). Granted, the evidence here is a single story, but it’s a killer, literally. If you’ve read any Márquez, you recognize that the title is highly ironic. Any happiness in the story, as the narrator says “became hellish for us,” two brothers, nine and seven, and eventually worse for the titular and Teutonic nanny hired to instill virtues of old fashioned European order and civilization in their heretofore paradisiacal summer of unfettered freedom on a tiny island off the coast of Sicily while their parents are off on a five-week tour of the Aegean Sea. 
 
Miss Forbes arrives looking like a cross-dressing Wehrmacht veteran, and immediately imposes a strict regimen of timed activities consisting primarily of lessons in etiquette, piety, and obedience. Obedience above all, against which the boys, resentful but totally cowed at first, eventually plan to rebel. So there’s your conflict: a child’s need for autonomy and play vs. autocratic adult authority. A common theme, but Marquez elevates the stakes when the boys, infuriated by their discovery that Miss Forbes holds herself to a far lower standard of decorum and rectitude at night, plan to kill her by spiking her brandy with poison. 
 
The plan goes awry until one afternoon when the boys return home from a swim to discover a crowd of police, ambulance medics and curious neighbors. Inside, Miss Forbes lay on the floor of her room, her naked body riddled with 27 fatal knife wounds, inflicted with “the fury of a love that found no peace, and that Miss Forbes had received with the same passion … the inexorable price of her summer of happiness.” 
 
Who did it? The local fisherman whose beauty Miss Forbes found beyond imagining? No clues or possible suspects mentioned. It’s not that kind of story. A moral, at least? Not that I can tell. The most we can say is that any notion of a summer sentimental education for the boys has been permanently corrupted by witnessing this bloody image of adult loneliness and love. Not exactly beach-reading material, unless your taste runs to the mystifying and disturbing. Listening to that 60s pop ode to summer love, ‘See You in September’ by The Happenings, might cheer you up. I doubt it.
 
Picked by Tom McGohey. Tom taught Composition and directed The Writing Center at Wake Forest University for 20 years. He has published essays in Fourth Genre, Sport Literate, and Thread. Two of his essays have been cited as “Notable Essays” in Best American Essays.

First published in Playboy, January 1986, under title of ‘The Happy Summer of Miss Forbes’. Collected in Strange Pilgrims, Knopf, 1993

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