Spencer’s elegant stories are more about what doesn’t happen than what does.
Although this collection occasionally bespeaks a South right out of a Horton Foote play, what Spencer explores is less the histrionics so often associated with Southern domestic fiction than the muted desperation generated by imploding marriages. Adult children still displaced by divorce constitute a major motif in “Blackie” and “Sightings.” In “Return Trip,” a newly wealthy friend visiting Asheville (ostensibly to see the arson-ravaged Thomas Wolfe House) reminds a couple that a long-ago night of drinking at a family reunion has forever cast the parentage of their only son into doubt. In “Rising Tide,” a divorcée, working as an adjunct professor, meets an Indian student who poses a courtly contrast to her prickly and still needy ex-husband. As its title insinuates, “On the Hill” is a horror story but of a very different sort—a glamorous couple, their origins carefully concealed, moves to town and gives sparkling dinner parties. Then why does their son keep appearing on the narrator’s doorstep? After the family moves away, the narrator, herself about to give birth after a long reproductive drought, is haunted by her failure to intervene in a menacing situation, the exact nature of which she fails to grasp—thanks mostly to good manners. In “The Wedding Visitor,” a congressman’s aide, formerly a poor or at least unwelcome relation, returns to the family compound where he spent summers as a child for a cousin’s wedding. He finally secures his status in his extended family when, a true Washington insider in training, he averts a fiscal scandal. Quiet and spare prose ferries tiny but explosive clues which point to powerful insights lurking between the lines. This collection should garner new readers for Spencer, who, despite a long and productive career, is still best known for her novella The Light in the Piazza (1960) and the ensuing movie and musical.
In Spencer’s world, the emotional debt ceiling is always on the rise.