Although family or the desire for family is frequently the overt subject, secrets and solitude lie at the heart of these 11 stories, of which several have appeared in the New Yorker.
Nelson (Some Fun, 2006, etc.) tends to front-load her crises. Not only is Emily, the heroine of “Party of One,” dying of cancer when she agrees to meet her sister Mona’s lover, she also knows—although Mona doesn’t know she knows—about Mona’s previous affair with Emily’s husband. Despite the potential for melodrama, Emily’s encounter with Mona’s lover evolves into a painful education. In the title story, another less-than-heroic heroine lives with her 15-year-old problem son while her ex-husband gets the son she favors, but when the troubled boy’s girlfriend has a baby, family relationships clarify into something resembling redemption. In “OBO,” a young grad student weasels her way into spending Christmas with her professor’s family. A con artist, she’s also heartbreakingly, cluelessly infatuated with the professor’s distracted wife. A similar loser in “Or Else” pretends to himself as much as to his date that a vacation house belongs to his family. The actual owners treated him with generosity until he betrayed them one time too many. In “Shauntrelle,” a woman who has destroyed her marriage describes her “season of uncertain and drifting identity,” summing up many of these characters’ predicaments. The liberal family of “We and They” adopts two black children with unintended, depressingly comic consequences. The brilliant, obese scientist in “People, People” has the unerring ability to tell people truths they don’t want to know. The settings are Western and middle-middle class—Sarah Palin country—but the characters defy stereotype. In one of the loveliest stories, “Kansas,” characters who assume disaster when a baby in the family goes missing with her teenage aunt find themselves almost disappointed by the benign ending.
Despite an occasional slip into glib slice-of-life, Nelson is at her best creating densely packed, almost novel-like family mini-sagas.