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A muted and haphazardly constructed story about several lonely souls whose hesitant interrelations barely ruffle the surface of life in the decidedly unglamourous upstate New York town of Paris—the second novel from the author of She Wanted Something Else (1987). “I’m interested in possibility,” declares Helene Hugel, a 30ish German-American woman who lives on her “Uncle” William Swick’s chicken farm, works at the local post office, and more or less passively endures a nonloving sexual relationship with Harry, the middle-aged macho sexist owner of a bar pointedly named “Better Days.” Most of the characters here have indeed seen such, even if William” a dwarf, and therefore the object of ongoing public ridicule and condescension—clings precariously to the “possibility” that Helene’s late mother Uta (whom William had taken in, children in tow, when Uta arrived in America after The War) would have eventually married him. Staffel observes her characters” quiet vulnerability with a wry tenderness somewhat reminiscent of John Irving, expanding their orbits to include a piecemeal history of Uta’s traumatic losses during the firebombing of Dresden (which she painstakingly recorded in the diary Helene now laboriously translates); and, rather more arbitrarily, the story of Stella Doyle, a half-Mexican teenager whose energies and attention waver between her all-American boyfriend on the one hand, and, on the other, the problem posed by her clinically depressed and obese mother. This is a daunting variety of material, all of which often feels like three novellas that haven—t quite fused successfully into a single story. Readers will understand that these are all “lost things” seeking some definition, if not fulfillment, of their abbreviated and enigmatic human connections. But Staffel’s people still don—t seem to belong all in the same book, and we don—t know what to make of them any more than they themselves do.

Pub Date: Aug. 4th, 1999
ISBN: 1-56947-160-6
Page count: 240pp
Publisher: Soho
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 1999