Following on her first collection, The Rose Thieves (1990), Schmidt offers a generally lackluster gathering of ten tales, though with a few standouts that are fresh and cracklingly funny takes on modern womanhood
Schmidt is at her top in the first person, and even better when skewering an intimate relationship at close quarters, like one between glowering spouses or between a slavishly resentful adult child and father. The first two stories, both from the point of view of a longtime wife demonstrating bitterly depleted spiritual forces, set a dry, deadpan tone (which is, disappointingly, never regained elsewhere in the collection). In “Songbirds,” Francine, a successful artist reeling from her husband’s rejection, descends on her derivative younger sister Etta’s provincial domicile outside of Venice, where, to escape her overachieving sister, she has married a traditional Italian and vengefully settled for the life of full-time wife and mother. (Schmidt can’t resist bursting into the narrative with righteous exclamations in the face of Francine’s sense of being shut out by both her husband and sister: “What’s more erotic than one’s own darling self?”) In the title story, Daisy, a woman living outside of Boston, with her “rages and despairs listed on a notecard,” falls madly in love with her psychologist, who becomes a best-selling author and darling of TV interviewers. Daisy’s language of exasperated adoration, coupled with the therapist’s weary, textbook explanations, is wildly out-of-synch to hilarious, memorable effect. Other stories take on more somber tones, such as “Blood Poison,” about the neediness between a failing father and his lone, wary daughter, and the final “Funeral Party,” which sorts through a shattered family’s dignity in the wake of an artist son’s suicide.
If only Schmidt had kept her pace smart-alecky and feline-wise, rather than letting it peter impotently out.