Ohlin follows up her debut novel (The Missing Person, 2005) with a low-key collection that dabbles gingerly in suburban angst.
The 17 stories here are mostly too brief for satisfying developments, a problem exacerbated by the author’s habit of employing quick turns at the end for mild surprise. “Simple Exercises for the Beginning Student” exemplifies Ohlin’s understated tone in its portrait of Kevin, a friendless, seemingly dull-witted eight-year-old boy who decides he wants to take piano lessons, even though his parents are struggling to pay the rent and don’t have a piano. Moreover, his mother is pregnant with a child her husband apparently doesn’t want, and the tentative lessons assume a redeeming, albeit fleeting beauty in the face of the father’s abandonment of his family. “A Theory of Entropy” moves along in a similarly uninflected manner. It takes place at an isolated lake cottage inhabited by freelance designer Claire and her hermit boyfriend Carson, an academic hammering out a book based on his highly abstract notions about entropy—which Claire imagines is a “scientific term for fate.” When his young, female editor, Jocelyn, arrives to spend several days working with Carson on the manuscript, Claire finds Jocelyn wonderfully human in a way that her boyfriend is not. The title story imagines a love affair between two emotionally damaged people: Robert, a lonely financial analyst, and Astrid, the strangely unhinged woman he meets at a wedding in Babylon, Long Island. In spite of the alarming tissue of pathological lies he catches her in, Robert stands by his rare love for Astrid: “Without her there was nothing. Yet he had no idea who she was.” One of the few stories that do bear an organic growth is “The Tennis Partner,” a rueful coming-of-ager told by a now-adult narrator who remembers how he loved from afar and lost the beautiful daughter of his father’s tennis partner.
Solidly constructed work that doesn’t immediately wow.