I love the short story form, especially if it is done well. Edith Pearlman does it very well.
There is nothing exquisite about her prose. Her stories are plainly told. Her characters are interesting, but not extraordinary. It is her imagination and how she tells her tale that puts in the pantheon of great short story writers. Like a wilderness guide she often leads you through switchbacks. You trust her, but you have no idea where you are going.
To tell you the end of these stories would spoil the journey. So I give a brief summary or will tell you where each story begins and the meaning I believe Ms. Pearlman is trying to convey. As stories are open to readers’ interpretations, I might be wrong.
For writers interested in learning the craft of short story writing she is required reading. Her earlier anthology Binocular Vision, won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist to the National Book Award. She is a recipient of the PEN/Malamud Award for excellence in the short story. She is admired by her peers, Ann Patchett considering her a national treasure whose stories compare with John Updike and Alice Munro. In short, this book, and likely others I have not read, are well worth your time and a must if you write short stories.
The first story is Tenderfoot. It begins with a woman who gives footrubs. The story concerns the moral choices we make and the consequences of those choices. In short, nothing to do with footrubs.
The second story is Dream Children. It begins with an elderly immigrant woman who has come to the US to look after the children of a younger and more modern couple. She discovers some unusual drawings in their chest draw. The story is about superstitions and traditions.
“Castle” begins with Zeph, a single anesthesiologist who is dedicated to his job. Choices of the heart simply describes this story, but does preclampsia and congenital droop complicate the diagnosis?
“Stone” is a straight-forward beautiful tale about practical aging and family relationships. As in a number of stories, she is a fine observer of nature. Some are metaphorical.
“He pointed out things that she was not yet clever enough to notice: the hunting spider, which does not build webs but instead spies her prey and chases it and pounces. He showed her a toad crawling to his death while nearby a generation of tadpoles, some of them his progeny, sped through the water. His fingers lifted a low branch and there blossomed a miniature plant with a tiny dark flower: as plant that lives its whole life under a leaf, hostage to its own nature, visible to no one except some expert winged pollinator.”
“Her Cousin Jamie” is merely about an affair. Nothing compelling.
Godolphin, Massachusetts is the setting for a number of Ms. Pearlman’s short stories. It is drawn in part from her residence in Brookline, Massachusetts, which is a suburb of Boston. The linkage between these stories are the “Forget Me Not’ antique store and its owner Rennie, and the nearby Devlin Hotel. The locations are less important than the ensemble of characters that inhabit them.
The Flaxbaums live in Godolphin. The father, Myron Flaxbaum, is a teacher of Latin at Caldicott Academy, a private girls’ school. He moonlights selling shoes for extra money. His wife is a nurse, and he has two children who are academically inclined. Myron receives an email from King’s College in London to speak about the topic “The Mystery of Life and Death”. The story “Blessed Harry” provides one answer.
Rennie acquires against her usual better judgment a statute called “PucK” from Ophelia, a 75-year-old regular customer of her antique store, whose husband has just died.
“Ophelia Vogelsang had staggered in three months ago with this fellow in her arms. “From Henry’s apartment,” she’d crowed, as if saying “from the Vanderbilt collection.” She set the statue on the floor and sank onto the striped love seat.”
Puck is not the image of the sprite, but he had guarded Uncle Henry’s back parlor fifty years ago. “Though parlor isn’t the right word”. In the spirit of Las Vegas, Puck is a quiet enchanter in the aptly named story “Puck”.
“Assisted Living” provides a little rogue history about the “Forget Me Not” store and some rogue.
“What the Ax Forgets the Tree Remembers” is an unsettling story with a distinctly feminist and human rights tone. In this very strong story, Gabrielle, the concierge extraordinary at Devlin’s Hotel, against type, becomes involved with the Society Against Female Mutilation.
“The brutality practiced in the photographs-shamefully, it made Gabrielle feel desirable. She was glad that sha and her stylists had at last found a rich oxblood shade for her hair; and such a Parisian way, complementing the Parisian name that her Pittsburgh parents had snatched from a newspaper the day she was born. She knew that at fifty-two she was still pretty, even if her nose was a millimeter too long and there was a gap between a bicuspid and a molar due to extraction; how foolish not to have repaired that, and now it was too late, the teeth on either side had already made halfhearted journeys toward each other. Still the gap was not disfiguring. And her body was as narrow and supple as a pubescent boy’s. She was five feet tall without her high-heeled shoes, but she was without her high-heeled shoes only in the bath- even her satin bed slippers provided an extra three inches.
“The Golden Swan” is the name of the cruise ship that two cousins sail on to the Caribbean as a gift from their grandpa. It is a tale of class separation and invasion of private lives.
In “Cul-de-Sac” three Godolphinites who live in one spend their free time trying to avoid Daphna who like a garrulous invasive species exceeds their tolerance. In the end Daphna returns to Jerusalem “where, I’m told, everybody talks at once, brags all the time.” The story questions what it means to be a neighbor, at least in the suburbs.
There is no scientific evidence that madness can be transferred between species, but in “Deliverance” a temporary worker at a soup kitchen employs this alchemy to keep the place sane.
Toby is an author of fictohistoriographia whose popularity ignored the grain of truth within her writings.
“Fabrications, they say…”
“Oh, fabrications. Literally yes. I make things up out of whole cloth-that’s to fabricate definitions one and two. One ‘to make; create.’ Two, ‘to construct by combining or assembling diverse parts, as in to fabricate small boats.’ However, three: ‘to construct in order to deceive, as in to fabricate an excuse’- I don’t do that darling.” He blushed.
“I concoct,” she continued, “but only to illuminate!”
What is concocted, and not to illuminate, is not that Roman/British longboats preceded the Vikings to North America, it is her family history. “Fishwater” is another example of Ms. Perlman’s serpentine path to an unexpected and powerful conclusion.
The chromatic scale is the base coat for the two succeeding stories: “Wait and See” and “Flowers”. Primates are trichromatic, unlike butterflies and pigeons which are pentachromatic. A small tribe in Namibia, the Himba tribe, is also pentachromatic. Lyle is believed to be a descendant. In “Wait and See” is has to decide which world he wants to see and live in, after his step-father invents spectacles that would let him existence in the trichromatic world of children his age. Differences and exceptionalism can be confining.
Like “Her Cousin Jamie”, “Flowers” is of lighter fare about marital relationships.
“Conveniences” returns us to Godolphin, where a summer affair between Amanda, a college student, and Ben, a mid-thirties resident of New York is ongoing under the watchful eye of Frieda, the child niece of the owner of the antique store. Along the way, Ms. Perlman reviews Nathaniel Hawthorne’s first novel Fanshawe.
In “Hat Trick” a mother despairing of four nubile 1950s love seeking girls tells them that all men are interchangeable. To prove it she tells them to write down all potential suitors in Godolphin on pieces of paper which they will draw from a hat. She tells them to keep the choice to themselves and to pursue that boy, as they will have a happy enough marriage and life with him. They take her seriously.
“Sonny” is about class and status in Godolphin. A professor and a son of the local vegetable man are both deathly ill. Along the way Ms. Perlman references Lear, Arcimdoldo and provides a lesson in grammar and writing. All entertaining, but the ending is draw dropping.
“The Descent of Happiness” is a very short story about a moment of happiness.
The title of the anthology, “Honeydew” is the same as the last story. It is Ms. Perlman’s like joke. The story is not the best in the collection; the education in the journey being the high water mark. The central character, Emily, is an anorexic student at a Caldicott Academy (where Mr. Flaxbaum teaches) who has a passion for entomology. Her father and the headmistress have other passions, in a case of rules can be broken.
“The uses of shit were many. The most delightful was manna. Emily liked the story of Moses leading the starving Israelites into the desert. Insects came to their rescue. Of course the manna, which Exodus describes as a fine frost on the ground with a taste like honey, was thought to be a miracle from God, but it was really Coccidae excrement. Coccidae feed on the sap of plants. The sugary liquid rushes through the gut and out the anus. A single insect can process and expel many times its own weight every hour. They flick the stuff away with their hind legs, and it floats to the ground. Nomads still eat it-relish it. It is called honeydew.”