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Focus on the family
This summer brings two short story collections perfect for dipping in and out of on your vacation: one by naturalist and poet Lucia Perillo, and a debut offering by Natalie Serber. Both focus on families, though the majority of Serber’s work is devoted more specifically to the ties between mothers and daughters.
The 14 stories in Happiness Is a Chemical in the Brain are firmly rooted in the small towns and quiet neighborhoods of the Pacific Northwest. Three linked stories follow Louise, a developmentally disabled adult who is a good-natured witness to her mother’s unhappiness and her younger sister’s sexual adventures. Many of Lucia Perillo’s adult characters recollect their childhoods, seeking answers to current situations in past behaviors. The wild exploits of youth are dissected in several stories such as “The Cavalcade of the Old West,” in which two sisters recall their adventures at a summer fair before one sister’s promiscuity drove them down separate paths. In “Report from the Trenches,” a frustrated housewife lives vicariously through the memories of her neighbor, now prim and proper, but once a female gang member. The narrator in “A Ghost Story,” one of the strongest stories in the collection, remembers her years as a “girl flagger” in a highway crew and the affair she had with a man who literally picked her up off the street.
Perillo’s characters are tough but with an edgy wit and a refreshing lack of self-pity, despite their often dead-end circumstances. Perillo’s work as a poet informs and deepens her language; in “Big-dot Day,” a miserable young boy, dragged cross-country by his mother and her new boyfriend, catches a gull with the boyfriend’s fishing rod while stuck in a motel room. The title story of a chronically ill woman suspecting her husband of infidelity ends with a striking vision of a quilt turning into migrating birds.
Natalie Serber explores the emotional rollercoaster of motherhood, from euphoria to fear and everything in between. Most of the stories in Shout Her Lovely Name trace the life of Ruby Hargrove, the daughter of an alcoholic father and depressed mother and herself the single mother of a daughter, Nora. Beginning with “Ruby Jewel,” the stories follow Ruby as she disentangles herself from her parent’s emotional neediness, only to be abandoned with a new baby, and throw a spotlight on seminal episodes of Ruby and Nora’s peripatetic life from New York and California. Each of the other three stories in the collection stands alone, but their subjects—a mother addressing her teenage daughter’s anorexia, a new mother comforting an orphaned baby on a plane and a middle-aged wife and mother taking stock of her life at her husband’s 50th birthday party—mirror and echo the themes explored so thoughtfully in the stories of Nora and Ruby. Like Perillo, Serber writes with grace, humor and a thoughtful, but realistic, understanding of the emotional toll demanded by families.