A charming collection of short stories populated by an array of characters of various ages and backgrounds, making wildly different mistakes.
While mothers are frequently featured in these stories, the title can be misleading; these fictions explore many themes, not just the trappings of motherhood. Instead, Caswell (Luck: A Collection of Facts, Fiction, Incantation & Verse, 2010) has chosen an admirable selection of characters, some of whom toe a too-precious line without overstepping it: an out-of-work parade-float designer who has taken residence in an office building; a man who’s lost his wife, his dog, his roof; a fiercely independent aged herbalist whose pregnant daughter is trying to get her into a retirement home; etc. Caswell finds the most traction when she takes the time let her character sketches evolve into full stories. The collection’s most successful story, “64 with a Sharpener,” describes Frances Dugan, a 10-year-old girl who feels out of place in her 1970s neighborhood. Caswell does wonderful work establishing the setting, where middle-class, suburban respectability lives on streets bordered by dirt tracks still waiting to be developed and inhabited. When Frances misplaces a crayon from her beloved box of 64, she ventures to the end of one such gravel street, where she encounters one of the people living in shacks at the outskirts of town. It’s a magnificent, dramatic moment that underscores the need for more moments like this in Caswell’s other stories. Too often she’s content to set up an interesting situation—a series of texts between a mother and her son in the military, for instance—without a satisfying follow-through. It’s a shame, because Caswell is such a gifted sentence-level writer. For instance, in “Guinea Pepper,” she describes the seasons: “Summer that year had refused to drop away and the line between it and autumn blurred, congealed like old jam. Too much of a good thing, past its prime.” When that gift is put to good use, as in the impressive closing story, “Salvation,” the results are striking.
An uneven but frequently affecting collection.