In this collection—a novella and three stories—women face melancholic truths that drive them to food, fantasy, and other survival gambits.
The battle between reconciling sweet and salt, hope and bitter despair, underlies these well-written pieces. In “On Curing and Cooking,” the first and very short story that begins this debut volume, a nameless woman experiments with methods of preparing raw fish without heat by using various combinations of salt and sugar. Her experiments tell her that success is about balance in a way that seems to guide the whole collection: “The tongue, like the mind, was intrigued by mystery and bored by cloying sweetness. It recoiled at unrelenting bitterness.” In Sweet, the novella that anchors the collection, Eva is a grandmother with diabetes burdened by a guilty memory from her World War II girlhood in Ukraine. Now she craves sweets but is thwarted by her daughter-in-law, a doctor with painful childhood memories of her own. Other stories trace characters’ attempts to deal with bitter realities: sometimes through sweet fantasy, sometimes through astringent acceptance. In “Alcántara,” for example, a mother compares herself to “anyone whose soaring faith in life’s endings has crash-landed on the rocks.” Balance doesn’t always work. The slightly more comic-toned “A Squirrel’s Tale” describes a suburban family arguing over who must deal with a dying squirrel. The narrator can’t win, because “I am a mother first and a combatant second.” Agvanian draws readers in with intelligent, polished storytelling that can achieve the condensed imagery of poetry. Eva remarks that her granddaughter Mercy moves with “a natural grace. I am glad it is so, if only for Mercy’s sake. I am no mercenary, but I understand the market.” Mercy, mercenary, and market all share the same linguistic root, and this semiotic yoking neatly captures how our culture demands that women have a fraught relationship with their own bodies and romantic success. Agvanian’s related use of food as a central metaphor evokes the same poetic efficiency, as in “Sweet,” in which Eva’s eating becomes the locus of family disharmony.
A promising debut that resists sweetness while understanding the longing for it.