Six stories, delicately intertwined “by a great net of glorious strands,” in a standout second collection from Silber (In My Other Life, 2000, etc.).
The first of these longish tales, “My Shape,” follows Alice (each story spans decades of its narrator’s life), a buxom young woman who wants to dance. She has a vagabond’s life, living with unsatisfying men until she gets a job on a French cruise ship and marries Jean-Pierre. The two move to France; then Alice returns alone to America, where she tries once more to dance (tutored by a sadist named Duncan Fischbach), until later in life she meets one Giles back in Paris and finds out finally what love can be. “The High Road” first takes up the life of Duncan Fischbach when he falls in love with Andre, then revisits him when he’s old: having given up on the whole idea, he falls passionately, and chastely in love with Carl, a young singer performing the work of Italian poet Gaspara Stampa. “Gaspara Stampa,” in turn, imagines the short life of the Renaissance poet, fleshing out the inspiration for her poetry, which glorifies the pain and suffering of love as much as honoring its comforts and joys. “Ashes of Love,” a more contemporary tale, follows young lovers Tom and Peggy as they travel the globe, adventuring, sightseeing, arguing, saving up money back in New York and then traveling again, until Peggy gets pregnant and everything irreversibly changes. The title story is set in China at the turn of the 20th century as a young missionary couple (the great-grandparents of Tom’s wife) and their children attempt to convert the Chinese. The proselytizers are naïve, too blinded by their own sweet devotion to Christ to see real trouble when it comes in the form of the Boxer Rebellion. Last is Giles’s story, “The Same Ground,” a meditation on love.
Silber travels the globe and the centuries with ease. If more collections were like this one, readers would gladly abandon the novel.