PERFECT LIVES by Polly Samson


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A cycle of intersecting stories describes the lives that make up an English seaside community—their joys, regrets, and various embarrassments.

Samson is gifted in her understanding of and patience for the variety of human experience. In these stories, a piano tuner regrets his untapped talent as a musician; a mother worries that she doesn’t love her baby as she should; a young girl tries to get to know her long-lost father and finds herself saddened and exasperated by him at the same time that she's eager for his attention. These characters are all loosely connected to each other. The young mother has a sister who later becomes the piano tuner’s lover. The piano tuner’s former teacher is the mother of the fatherless girl. This strategy allows Samson to draw for her readers the outline of an entire community. We see how each character affects the others, for good and for bad. Though these characters are stationed in a small seaside town, they aren’t trapped there, and the scope of the book widens to encompass mainland Europe. A concert pianist considers her Jewish grandmother’s flight from Hamburg as she herself leaves the city after a performance. Another story describes the struggle by inhabitants of Soviet-occupied Poland to build a church. Samson’s prose, whatever her topic, is elegant and warm. She has a lyrical touch and a fine eye for detail. Unfortunately, she also has a penchant for preciousness which, when indulged, can be cloying. In her final story, a woman converses with her beloved cat, and the cat, in complete sentences and formal syntax, converses back. Other stories, too, border on cute in their overly tidy resolutions. Samson’s benevolence, though, and the good-heartedness of her observations, makes up for those too-sweet moments.

Samson’s new stories are warm and engaging, but some falter on their own affected charm.

Pub Date: March 22nd, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-63286-549-6
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 2016


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