THE SECRET HABIT OF SORROW by Victoria Patterson


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The West Coast characters inhabiting these 16 stories from Patterson (The Little Brother, 2015) vary in age and socio-economic status, but all are caught in an acute struggle against emotional loss and personal failure.

“How To Lose”—about an infertile woman experiencing the intense anxiety of maternal love for her orphaned 8-year-old nephew as he learns to swim—sets the bittersweet tone for the stories that follow. In “Vandals,” a lonely, long-divorced attorney finally faces the fact that his ex-wife and son have “moved on.” The wife in “DC” accepts responsibility for torpedoing a decent 23-year marriage with a meaningless affair, unlike the philandering but still devoted ex-husband in “Paris.” Bad choices and addiction are common here, but Patterson’s unfussy prose draws the reader into her complex, sometimes even convoluted relationships. For instance in “Confetti,” a fired lecturer who has degenerated into an alcoholic bum upends her former lover’s quiet professorial life one way after another. The earnest young single mother of "Half-Truth,” who finds herself inexorably drawn back into a perilous relationship with her 6-year-old son’s worthless, drug-addled father, exemplifies Patterson’s ability to create characters whose abilities to feel deeply make them sympathetic despite their emotional and ethical failures. Patterson sometimes plays with the importance of secrecy in relationships. In “Johnny Hitman,” a heroin addict and a born-again Christian maintain a guarded friendship without directly confronting the childhood sexual trauma that has shaped their twisted intimacy. A similar secret besets the multigenerational family in “Visitations.” Optimism flickers in “Fledglings,” “Dogs,” "Parking Far Away,” and “We Know Things,” as young women show signs of growing beyond their traumas. The final two stories return to bittersweet territory. "Appetite” follows the faltering friendship between a former ballerina and a secretary who is discovering her own creative voice; “Nobody’s Business” focuses without sentimentality on a teenage boy learning to accept outside support and possible love while caring for his dying mother.

The beating hearts of Patterson’s characters and the directness of her voice make the grim material bearable, sometimes almost hopeful.

Pub Date: July 17th, 2018
ISBN: 978-1-64009-052-1
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Counterpoint
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 2018


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