Called “a novel in stories,” Walbert’s new entry (after The Gardens of Kyoto, 2001, etc.) starts slowly, then reaches high indeed.
Walbert’s first-person plural (“we”) draws attention to itself in a tic-like way and automatically narrows and miniaturizes tone and theme, even character, since no chorus can have the idiosyncratic power of an individual. This “we” is a group of women who married and had babies back in the 1950s; now, they’re divorced or widowed, their daughters grown and gone—or dead. “The Intervention” opens with the group attempting to expose an unscrupulous realtor: the “we” is in full swing, the story at once conventional and affected. “Esther’s Walter” fares little better: a widow gives a party, then ceremoniously drinks poison in front of all her friends. “Bambi Breaks for Freedom”—an ex-pianist, in a wheelchair, telephones the man who once dumped her long ago—suffers from the same improbability and coy tone. But then things really start happening: The “we” falls aside as members of the group “tell” their stories in what are suddenly natural voices, with resulting believability and expressiveness. It’s revealed, in “Screw Martha,” that one daughter, Megan, actually killed herself, and from then on every scrap the reader can gather about her or her mother is riveting. In “Sick Chicks,” a nursing home death (the patients discuss Mrs. Dalloway) is perfect, deft, and unobtrusively poignant, as is “Warriors” (a young pregnant woman’s hidden tale is drawn out by a portrait photographer). Whole lives—a generation, an era—are handled with grace, deftness, and skill in these pieces, including the wondrous “Come As You Were,” where the women wear their old wedding dresses to a party, a sadly hilarious conceit that provides a veritable feast (as does “The Beginning of the End”) of tales that unflinchingly look half a century into the past and tell us exactly what was back there, and what is—or isn’t—still here, today.
Then-and-now prose pieces that, at their best, are among the finest there can be.