Some of the best stories in this uneven collection suggest a return to form for a writer better known for his novels.
Guterson’s first story collection in 15 years should appeal to fans of his debut novel (Snow Falling on Cedars, 1994) who might have found the dark, antic humor of his most recent one (Ed King, 2011) jarring. Many of these stories concern the awkwardness of intimacy, how uncomfortable it can be—particularly in the Internet age, which has had such a profound effect on how people understand their own lives and each other. The first story, "Paradise," sets the tone and theme; it concerns two middle-aged people traveling to consummate a relationship that began through an online dating service. They barely know each other except for the narratives they have conjured, and the unnamed man has particular concerns: “He told her he didn’t know what would happen in bed. He said he hadn’t slept with anyone but his wife for twenty-six years—then add on the six months since she’d died of a heart attack while in the middle of leaving him for someone new.” The woman ultimately tells her story, which casts her in a different light than he had imagined, in a tale that resists sentimentality or pat resolution. Many of the rest feature similar difficulties in connecting: the landlord and the title character of “Tenant” (whose interplay is restricted to email and bank transfers until they finally meet in person); the adult brother and sister in “Pilanesberg” (he visits her in Africa, where she is dying of cancer). Many of the stories hit similar notes, in which self-conscious characters discover that “no matter what you did, you were wrong.”
The return to the Pacific Northwest and introspective characters finds the author striking familiar, responsive chords.