Ten debut stories that are ambitious and skillful indeed, although they can also be irritatingly self-conscious and wearingly effortful.
The themes here carry forward from story to story in sometimes satisfying ways, but Ursula Codwell—daughter, wife, mother, and narrator—can be a trial, alternately talking too much, making too much of too little, or inexplicably putting up with truly obnoxious family members, in particular her husband, brother-in-law, and son. There’s a touch of the exotic to Ursula’s background, what with a European grandmother, a beautiful mother born in Belgium and once resident in French Saigon, and schooling under a lusciously repressive Catholicism. Now, though, Ursula lives in suburban New York with husband Gus and teenaged son Cosmo, concerned with plain-life sorts of things like tumor-surgeries and speeding tickets. The first surgery is for the removal of a tumor—a teratoma—that’s made of hair and may have been the start of the twin Ursula always wanted, an intriguing theme that, as usual with these pieces, is diminutized by Ursula’s never-flagging tone of coyly bemused toughness. Her voice can be entertaining—she’s widely read, loves etymologies, has a Mrs. Ramsay kind of flightiness—but she can also seem merely absurd, going in to appeal a speeding citation when she has no right to, carrying on past the point of interest about what to wear (as in seeing the pope from far off, title story), or, above all, not merely tolerating but doting on the bad manners of her seemingly mean and very stupid son, or on the obnoxious and unprepossessing arrogance, cruelty, philistinism, and egotism of her know-it-all husband and brother-in-law. It may be charming that the intelligent and not-quite-ex-Catholic Ursula names her bulldog Hildegard von Bingen and can find humor when a priest-friend dies while masturbating, but it’s less funny when her masochism makes her a willing and faux-girlish doormat.
A skilled writer whose infatuation with a voice gets in the way of her seeing.