Stansbury follows up her debut novel, Places to Look for a Mother (2002), with a well-crafted collection of 18 stories, reveries on contemporary domestic life.
Marital discord, unhappy wives, lecherous repairmen, a realtor with polygamy on his mind, and custody disputes may seem the stuff of gloomy reading, but Stansbury strikes just the right balance between humor and the kind of realism that is both familiar and shocking to make this a satisfying exposé of American relationships in the age of Oprah and Martha Stewart. “The Apology” stars Rose, the kind of driven wife and mother whose immersion in committees, fundraisers, and meetings, doesn’t assuage her worries about her new “job” (motherhood) and her fear that she won’t get it right. The Hawaiian Benefit Bash for her children’s preschool goes off without a hitch, until Rose shouts profanities—the cosmic roar of a domestic mouse—into a crowd of dismayed parents. In “American Bush,” a worshipful student and her much older boyfriend, a holier-than-thou hippie, spend an experimental evening at a strip club, where shame and manipulation become more apparent offstage than on. The title story offers a finely detailed account of a once perfectly nice marriage that has become a quiet battle between the spouses’ separate disillusionments as they face aging: “When oh when did they start needing a tube of lubricant in the bedside drawer, for the babysitter to find when she snooped?” It ends with a husband going too far. Perhaps the standout here is “The Gingerbread Boy,” which shows sleazy Russell pressuring his eight-year-old son to move to Reno and ride horses. He’s actually kidnapping the boy from the mother’s custody, and Stansbury deftly delineates a parent’s manipulations and the irrational immediacy of a child’s mind in a sad, frightening tale.
Though the shorter pieces fall short of their imagistic aspirations, smart writing and thematic cohesion make this a welcome addition to the form.