Mary Gaitskill: a retrospective

16 August 2016

Teenage runaway; young stripper; writer of powerful, haunting stories. From Bad Behaviour  in 1988, a story collection depicting seedy New York life, to Veronica in 2006, which follows a rollercoaster of a friendship between two women, to this year’s The Mare, about the relationship between a childless white woman and a Dominican girl from a deprived background, Mary Gaitskill’s writing is often disturbing and always meticulously perceptive. In this retrospective we explore all Mary’s published books and their recurring themes of feminism, relationships and sexuality.

Tell us which of Mary Gaitskill’s works you’ve read – or plan to read – over at Twitter @serpentstail and Facebook @serpentstail


In her first collection of stories Mary Gaitskill explores love, lust, infatuation and power within relationships. In a blog written for Waterstones ‘On Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behaviour, author Zoe Pilger wrote:

‘Like the HBO TV series Sex and The City, which came a decade later in the late 90s, Bad Behaviour documents the lives of women trying to find their way in New York. Unlike the writers of Sex and The City, however, Gaitskill doesn’t pretend that the apotheosis of a woman’s life is finding ‘The One’.’

The story entitled ‘Secretary’ inspired the controversial film of the same name, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal. Watch the trailer below.


Mary’s first novel explores the experiences of those alienated from society. A journalist, Justine (‘thin girl’) interviews Dorothy (‘fat girl’) about her time as a member of a cult led by an author. Though they have very different backgrounds, the two girls find they have both experienced vicitimisation at the hands of their parents. 

Kirkus reviews wrote

‘Gaitskill fully understands the psycho-dynamics of being a misfit, and hence the appeal of such as Rand. But her fine and disturbing novel is also a stunning work of the imagination–genuine and luminous.’

Two Girls is one of the books referenced in the Rumpus article ‘What Men Talk About When They Talk About Mary Gaitskill’, which argued that men feel uncomfortable reading Gaitskill’s work and thus are inclined to review it negatively. This in turn prompted Mary Gaitskill’s ‘open letter’, in which she rebuffs this claim: ‘in truth some of my best support has come from men’.


In these stories, ‘Mary Gaitskill charts the twists and turns of emotion and desire, in fanatically analytical prose that zips along in a fever of self-consciousness that would seem loony if her observations weren’t so sane’ New York Times

Read an extracted story: Tiny Smiling Daddy


Shortlisted for the National Book Award, Veronica is the story of the friendship between Alison and Veronica, who meet amid the nocturnal glamour of 1980s New York: one is a former modeling sensation, the other an eccentric middle-aged proofreader.

Over the next twenty years their friendship will encompass narcissism and tenderness, exploitation and self-sacrifice, love and mortality.  Moving seamlessly between the glamorous and gritty ’80s, when beauty and style gave licence to excess, and the broken world of the decade’s survivors twenty years later, Gaitskill casts a fierce yet compassionate eye on the two eras and their fixations. 

We’re thrilled to be publishing a new classic edition of Veronica in December.


A set of short stories which once again delves into the messy, broken and often out-of-control lives of ‘normal’ people. As the New York Times writes,

‘The people in Gaitskill’s stories often behave unconventionally and impulsively; they may seem to have an agency outside their author’s control, doing what not even she could expect, but they never escape her pitiless eye and meticulous hand.’

Read an extracted short story, Mirrorball

THE MARE (2016)

The Mare is Mary Gaitskill’s first novel in over a decade. Ginger is in her forties and a recovering alcoholic when she meets and marries Paul. When it becomes clear it’s too late for her to have a baby of her own, she tries to persuade him to consider adoption – but he refuses. As a compromise, they sign up to an organisation that sends poor inner-city kids to stay with country families for a few weeks in the summer, and so one hot July day eleven year old Velveteen Vargas, a Dominican girl from one of Brooklyn’s toughest neighbourhoods, arrives in their lives, and Ginger is instantly besotted.

While Velvet returns her affection, she finds the intensity of it bewildering. Velvet discovers she has a natural talent for riding and a deep affinity with the damaged horses cared for there. But when Ginger begins to entertain fantasies of adopting her, things start to get complicated for everyone involved.

‘Visceral and haunting, and the telling, with its shifting first person narrative, is nothing short of masterful’ GQ 

Read the first chapters:

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