Wednesday, March 2, 2016

March Book Review Club: Honeydew

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@Barrie Summy

I'm posting this in the teeth of March winds, hoping the power stays on until I push "publish." If the power goes off, all you need is a good book and a headlamp. I'd recommend the book reviewed below. It'll keep you absorbed even if the batteries start to flicker.

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Short stories by Edith Pearlman
Little, Brown & Co., 2015

In a reader’s guide at the end of HONEYDEW, an interview with author Edith Pearlman tells us that each of her stories has originated from “a character and a situation—a dilemma, a conflict, a wish—and a wisp of a hint about the solution or resolution or gratification or disappointment that results.”

Don’t you love author interviews? Especially when you agree with them.

Being a megalomaniac, I insist that my student writers in the local school start their stories the way I do, by learning as much as they can about the main character. “The best stories,” I intone, “start with a character who has a problem.”

That’s probably why I wallowed so joyfully in this collection by Pearlman, a much-admired writer to whom I’d paid no attention up to now because in addition to being a megalomaniac I’m also an idiot. (If you are too, know that she’s a former computer programmer whose first collection of stories was published in 1996 when she was 60. This is her fifth. She’s won big prizes right along, but her last collection, BINOCULAR VISION, won the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award and was nominated for the National Book Award.)

These are complex, rich stories whose “situations” are interesting (love triangles, obsession, impending death) almost to the point of gimmickry. What saves them is the fullness  of the characters and the deft way their author handles them. You’re hooked from the first description.

Chosen at random:

 “Like many long-married people they looked like siblings—both short, both with fine thin hair the color of Vaseline, both with a wardrobe of ancient tweeds and sand-colored cashmere sweaters.”

 “As for his head, he had brown hair, too much of it, a blunt nose and chin, and a habit, during conversation, of fastening his gaze on one side of your neck or the other.”

“She had performed a solo at the high school graduation two years ago, her long limbs making chaste love to the cello.”

Many of the stories take place in Godolphin, a Boston suburb a lot like Brookline, where the author lives. A high-end antiques store figures in several of them. I loved this—sometimes, the tragedy of short stories is that you feel you’re leaving too soon. It was lovely to stick around, seeing the town and Rennie the shop-owner from this angle and that.

At times there's a touch of magic realism. A worker in a homeless center, for example, may or may not employ a pair of gerbils in a successful exorcism. Even when they seem strictly real, there’s something otherworldly about these stories. If a girls’ school headmistress finds herself pregnant, would marrying an unrelated groundskeeper really keep her from losing her job? In another universe, the answer would be, “No, and what is this author trying to foist on us?”

For Pearlman it works, mostly. In the rare instances when it doesn’t you just move on, eager to meet more characters.

Dear FCC: Got this for Christmas (partly thanks to worthy advisers at Blue Hill Books, Blue Hill, Maine). Now I’m going to read BINOCULAR VISION by the same author. I’ll probably buy that with my own money. Considering the state of my finances, this is the height of honest praise.