In her immersive new collection of nine stories and a novella, Nelson (Bound, 2010, etc.), a much lauded novelist and short story writer, introduces not-always-happy or well-behaved protagonists who make questionable choices.
Ex-boyfriends and -girlfriends, stepchildren from dead marriages and former in-laws crop up in the present, affecting the status quo. In “Soldier’s Joy,” a woman who married her college professor goes home years later to help her injured father and rediscovers the attraction of an old boyfriend, whose rejection of her in the past is about to haunt her anew. A rich example of Nelson’s ability to conjure a fully peopled scenario in only 20 pages, “iff” reveals the poignantly interdependent relationship between a divorced woman and her ex–mother-in-law. Lovey in “First Husband” comes to the aid of her needy former stepdaughter—tending her children, accepting her manipulation—while considering different kinds of married love. These stories are set in scattered cities—Albuquerque, Houston, Telluride, Chicago—and focus on everyday families dealing with long-resonant emotions. While irony pervades many of them, a streak of despair runs through several, and suicide is touched on softly but repeatedly: in “iff”; in “The Village,” whose central character, Darcy, finds herself paying tribute to her father’s mistress, who rescued her once; and in “Winter in Yalta,” where a 30-year friendship unravels during a reunion weekend in New York. Nelson’s central characters can sometimes seem interchangeable: Mostly they are not-so-young women bruised by love, by leaving or being left, whether through death, divorce or dementia. But others—like Phoebe, the badly behaved woman of the title story, whose hair catches fire—are uniquely memorable.
Distinctive, quirky stories that deftly capture some of life’s messiness.