It’s her domestic turmoil—he’s just in it—in this deft debut by Mandelbaum.
Too often a novel-in-stories fails to gel, but these 11 interlocking tales (by an ex-editor of the late, lamented Story) marry well. Garrett Hughes, a Baltimore city bureaucrat, becomes the latest and most conventional of May-Annlouise’s three husbands. The challenge for Garrett is to become a father to the two stepchildren who come along with the deal, Turpin and Lynn, but their natural progenitors get in the way, even from beyond the grave. In “The Explorers,” Turpin’s father Tor, a Norwegian explorer, moves in with the newlywed couple only to die of the mad-cow-related kuru, contracted from eating “bad brain” during a cannibalistic ritual. Tor’s death and his polyglot afterlife theories will resonate for Turpin later, in the nuanced “Several Answers.” May-Annlouise’s first marriage was to Parni, an Indian Muslim who fathered Lynn, then imported his first wife, Nazar, into bizarrely comfortable bigamy in Baltimore (“Changeling”). Later, Garrett escorts teenaged Lynn to India to reconnect with Parni (“Pendant,” “Parni’s Present”). Romanticizing her origins, Lynn becomes a devout Muslim and is about to enter purdah in a marriage arranged by Parni and Nazar when her half-brother intervenes with rooftop histrionics (“The Omelet King”). At times, peripheral characters threaten to upstage the main players, including the Omelet King, who waits for an AIDS test result while catering the thwarted wedding, and Adriane Gelki, Garrett’s assistant and would-be mistress, who assuages her own family losses through expert NFL gambling. Graphic descriptions of in vitro fertilization and natural childbirth flirt with excess, and the quietly witty tone sometimes overreaches, as when a yoga class in Locust position “looked capable of razing entire crops.” Garrett, who functions as that nice third husband worth waiting for, is perforce more observer than active protagonist, but his normalcy anchors the more precarious plotlines. His emergence from the sidelines of paternity in the last story is gratifying if predictable.
Stories that, like Garrett and his new family, work better together.