SPEAKING WITH STRANGERS by Jo Anne Valentine Simson


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Simson’s (Russia Revisited, 2016) collection of 15 stories and a novella features characters who earn insights through self-reflection and interactions with strangers.

Martha, a widow in the short story “Body Donation,” contacts a medical school regarding her husband’s corpse, which she wants to be cremated. Although the grieving woman doesn’t know the person who answers her call, she initiates an earnest, in-depth discussion with him about her husband’s death. In Simson’s book, chance encounters like these often spark epiphanies. In “Who Will Care for the Children?” for example, a working mother, Lynn, is worried that her attention to her job is at least partly to blame for her not catching her son’s illness sooner; she meets a stay-at-home mom whose life is no less demanding. An American visitor in Korea (“Parking in Taegu”) seems to be irate at the entire country when her parked car vanishes—but a fateful, one-on-one encounter changes her point of view. The titular “stranger” in many stories is an unnamed narrator who’s often in the process of examining his or her own life. Several tales here tackle themes of feminism and loneliness. One woman’s gloom reflects a city’s gray streets and sky in “Philadelphia Gray,” and the wife and mother of “Holiday Refrain” comes to a sad realization that holiday breaks aren’t so relaxing. Simson writes with a keen sense of the overall environment, even in “A Lifetime at the Laundromat,” which is formatted like a script. It opens with picturesque stage directions in which a woman is “sitting on a bench by the night-blackened, steam-glazed window, bent over a notebook, writing.” There are a few repetitious components in these tales, including numerous characters who are teachers. Married women contemplate affairs in both “Heart’s Desire” and the concluding novella, Gypsy, but the similar setups lead to somewhat different outcomes; in the former, a conservative political speaker instinctively denies her lustful feelings, which go against her principles, and in the latter, the protagonist is compared with her beloved dog, who’s miserable in a fenced backyard.

No-nonsense but undeniably profound tales.

Pub Date: May 20th, 2017
ISBN: 978-1-61984-691-3
Page count: 148pp
Publisher: Gatekeeper Press
Program: Kirkus Indie
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 2017


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