A melancholy fragrance reminiscent of Edna O’Brien lingers over these 13 stories, depicting women in their 40s as they look back at their younger, 1960s-era selves with exhausted nostalgia.
Most of Frank’s narrators are solitary, in childless relationships, or solitary within their relationships. Telling someone else’s story, they frequently reveal their own fears and midlife angst. In the brittle, angry “Exhibit A,” a woman recalls her romantic obsession with a married man who for years resisted their mutual attraction. Watching as he falls for someone else and his marriage collapses, she finally recognizes what a creep he’s been all along. Ensconced in a comfortable relationship of her own, the narrator of “The Queen of Worldly Graces” tells of an acquaintance who leaves his ever-patient, slightly shaggy live-in girlfriend for a more glamorous Parisian. Identifying with the shunned mate, the narrator feels threatened until she acknowledges that neither she nor her lover are brave enough to forego the safety of fidelity. Of the three stories told from a male viewpoint, two are little more than hostile exercises (particularly the self-evidently titled “The Extraordinary Member of Carlos Artiga”), but the third, “The Guardian,” is a small masterpiece. Middle-aged Boyd learns that the legal secretary who showed him genuine kindness during his lonely childhood was his father’s mistress during the marriages to both Boyd’s mother and stepmother. Using a less hard-edged tone here, Frank reaches a new depth as she explores secrets and the inability of anyone to fully capture another’s experience. Another standout is the painfully lovely “The Sounds That Arrive in the Present.” Worn-down by stress and overwork, Belle receives physical therapy from a slightly younger woman whose tale of fearlessness that caused a fatal accident reminds Belle of her own youthful zest while preparing her to live more fully in her middle-aged present.
Well-crafted and relentless. Women readers of a certain age and lifestyle will identify.