First collection by award-winning and much-anthologized Wisenberg.
This slender volume divides neatly into two sections unequal in both length and heft. The weaker second portion includes two reimagined fairy tales, a rather predictable reworking of the Expulsion from the Garden, a couple of technical exercises that read like workshop submissions, and “My Mother’s War,” a twice-anthologized story of intergenerational competition between mother-and-daughter artists. These pieces have the slight, disembodied feeling of university papers, airless and affectless. By contrast, the 14 tales in the first section, while not uniformly successful, have the intensity of something experienced firsthand. Taken as a unit, they tell the story of several generations in a family of well-to-do bubble-bath manufacturers, the Rubins, and their place in the unlikely Jewish community of Houston. The pieces swirl through the lives of mother and father, Ruth and Ruben, and daughters Ellen and Cecilia (called Ceci), with particular attention to Ruth and Ceci. They invoke the 1950s, ’70s, and ’90s with subtle touches and inerrant memory. Ceci (closely modeled on the author, one suspects) is the kid sister par excellence, entertaining Ellen’s many admirers and, in the charming title piece, even landing one of them in the teary aftermath of the Kent State killings. She runs through a checkered career as a journalist, a part-time waitress, and an ESL teacher. Similarly, Wisenberg runs through a variety of styles and tones in these 14 generally excellent short fictions, which merit expansion into a longer book.
Uneven, but for two thirds of its length deeply felt and rewarding.