In eight loosely constructed stories, Gornick (Tinderbox, 2013, etc.), a psychoanalyst, portrays the small worlds of privileged Americans.
Grouped in sections by date, ranging from 1961 to 2009, these stories are linked by relationships: of blood, romance, or chance acquaintance. Feminist issues loom large. In “Instructions to Participant,” Yale freshman Lizzy, pregnant at 18, is confused (as readers may be) by her mother’s conflicting accounts of why she “stopped loving.” In the rambling title story, Louisa, Lizzy’s cousin, meets William, nicknamed Bear, at Princeton. This Midwesterner-turned-surfer-turned-banker will forever overshadow Louisa’s love life, but their attachment, which compromises all their other relationships, is never convincingly rendered. “Lion Eats Cheetah Eats Weasel Eats Mouse” features Louisa’s affair (the cause of her first separation from Bear) with wheeler-dealer Andrew, an NYU law student obsessed with Guatemala. In “Parachute,” Andrew’s second wife, Marnie, endures morning sickness and existential nausea. (Fourteen years after similarly shocking Louisa, Andrew horrifies Marnie with his callous account of the lynching of a Guatemalan snitch.) One of the more powerful stories, “Priest Pond,” illustrates the limited vistas of characters not born to privilege: Bear’s sister Charlotte’s life is blunted by her husband’s decision to choose hockey over college. Brianna, Lizzy’s now-teenage daughter, and her adoptive parents exist in a parallel universe to the other characters (“Misto”) but contribute little to the theme. In several of the stories, a suicide, suspected suicide, or other melodramatic event substitutes for an earned epiphany. Likewise, heavy-handed symbolism too often takes the place of genuine resolution, as when singing along to “Mrs. Robinson” prompts a mother (Louisa’s best friend) to forgive her daughter for stabbing her (“Conchita”) or when the dinosaurs in a Manhattan museum signal redemption to Charlotte.
Superficial connections devoid of life-giving subtext.