A sensitive and amusing new collection of ten stories by Stanton (English/Indiana Univ.), latest winner of the Richard Sullivan Prize.
If Henry James’s wrote about Americans in Europe, Stanton often writes about suburban middle-class Americans coming back from brief European sojourns and then trying to draw on their experiences for “nourishment.” In their efforts, Stanton’s characters are always coming up short; the big meaning they sought in the Old World just isn’t meeting them halfway. In “The Ugly Virgin,” a thirtysomething American treks through an area of France she lived in ten years before, accompanied by her husband and her best friend from that time—only to see her husband fall under the spell of the treacherously flirty friend. In the title story, a woman runs into a former lover, whom she met 20 years ago “in a student train as it pulled out of Athens,” in (of all places) a bar and grill in Dixon, Nebraska. In “Ping-Pong,” the narrator draws on someone else’s Europe, as she fixates on her father’s recollection of a Ping-Pong game he played with Gertrude Stein as the writer visited American GIs in Paris after WWII. Stanton’s voice can be deft, subtle, and at its best very witty—yet some of his tales read like little more than interesting anecdotes. Still, the humor is real, and Stanton does create deliciously embarrassing situations for her characters. In “My Sister’s Novel,” two women find—and read—a manuscript among their dead sister’s belongings; one of them loves it, while the other, who can’t speak her mind without somehow insulting their sibling’s memory, thinks it’s tripe. “I like to think that Gail was very happy when she—passed away,” the more tender-minded sister insists. “Happier than she’d ever been. She was in love. She’d written a novel. Her life meant something.”
A collection whose stronger half is entertaining and engaging, the other markedly weaker.