``We cannot live without our illusions,'' muses one of the characters in this exuberant collection, stating a theme that Shields turns to repeatedly in 22 precise, penetrating tales.
The dazzling title story traces the play of hope and fantasy in the lives of a series of townspeople over the course of one seemingly uneventful day, their quotidian acts revealing those stubborn, regenerative ``cycles of consolation and enhancement'' with which we overcome despair. In ``The Scarf,'' a middleaged writer, amazed by the unexpected success of her novel, comes to grips with the limitations of her talent during a lunch with an old friend. In less assured hands such epiphanies might seem unsurprising, but the prolific Shields (Larry’s Party, 1997, etc.) creates characters with such believable complexities of behavior that their discoveries are fresh and convincing. In ``Dressing Down,'' a ten-year-old boy spends the summer at a nudist camp his grandfather founded, discovering there how the battle over reticence and frankness has defined his grandparents’ marriage—and learning also that nudity tends to dissolve possibility and mystery, making people more prosaic than alluring. ``Eros'' follows the reveries of a middleaged survivor of breast cancer as she looks back at her long, slow discovery of sex, from her first childhood suspicions of its presence in the lives of her parents to its impact on her nowdissolved marriage. Loss has taught her that, while sex provides no ultimate liberation, it plays a vital role in helping people for a moment to feel ``part of the blissful, awakened world.'' In the terse ``New Music,'' writing the biography of a minor composer transforms its author, giving her and her family a startled appreciation of imagination’s power to remake life.
Celebrating the importance of illusion and accident, Shields’s beautifully crafted stories capture her characters’ shocked discovery of the gap between imagination and reality—and their ability to find happiness despite this in the “opening, beckoning, sensuous world.”