‘The Three Fat Women of Antibes’ by W Somerset Maugham

This is one of the first short stories I remember reading: in the days before YA, you simply raided your parents’ shelves, although I seem to remember my mother actually putting it into my hands. Three well-to-do ladies of a certain age take a long holiday in Antibes, which serves the dual purpose of incessant bridge-playing and a serious attempt to shed the pounds. Perhaps their greatest challenge beyond reduction is to find a reliable fourth for cards; and on this occasion they believe they’ve found the holy grail in the (irritatingly slim) shape of Lena. Vivid, witty and spiteful, it is perhaps at odds with contemporary conceptions of sisterhood, but the tales of trumps taken and “antifat” rusks eaten still makes me laugh with agonised recognition of weak will and its consequent mayhem. Read it, but perhaps even better, listen to Maugham reading it on Youtube, made all the funnier by his pronunciation of the “fet” the ladies are determined to banish.

(first published in Hearst’s International Combined with Cosmopolitan in 1933, collected in Vintage’s Collected Short Stories Volume 1, available online here)

‘The Luncheon’ by W. Somerset Maugham

This is the story I always quote if I want to give an example of a story with a sting in the tail. Somerset Maugham is an old-fashioned storyteller, spinning out the story of a self-important woman who flatters and then mercilessly takes advantage of a young writer living in Paris. Her recurring refrain that she never has more than one thing for luncheon couldn’t be further from the truth, as she feasts on out-of-season salmon, oysters and asparagus and drinks champagne. In a few pages Maugham creates two utterly believable characters, and draws deftly the arrogance of the woman and the vulnerability of the young narrator as he sees her eating and drinking her way through the money that was supposed to last him for the rest of the month. She goes off laughing, but it is he, eventually, who has the last laugh. It’s a gem.

(Originally published in Nash’s Magazine, London, in 1924 and available alongside with other of Maugham’s works in modern editions from Penguin)