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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2012-03-26
- Reviewer: Staff
MacArthur Fellow and Pulitzer Prize–nominated poet Perillo debuts a work of fiction in a lyrical short story collection that reveals a genius for plot and metaphor. The collection’s 14 stories take place in the Pacific Northwest and chart a broad emotional arc: the sisters of “Cavalcade of the Old West,” one subdued and the other sexually promiscuous, recall their youth before their temperaments drove them into different lives; a son receives the ashes of his emotionally distant father and struggles to perform a cathartic send-off, in “Ashes”; and “Big-Dot Day” finds a hapless boy dragged cross-country by his mother and her latest boyfriend. Throughout, Perillo shows a supple imagination and wit as she explores fate and its ironies: women caught in cycles of self-destruction; lovers wading through the ambiguities of erotic life; characters coming to terms with mortality. Varying in style and form, with shifts from first- to third- to second-person, Perillo tests the boundaries of the short story form, all while creating interesting characters and dynamic narratives. Though the prevailing tone is one of ironic melancholy, a subtle but sustaining sense of hope prevails. Perillo (Inseminating the Elephant) strikes a glorious balance between wryly intelligent prose and emotional force, recalling Alice Munro at her best. This volume’s vibrant stories demonstrate the full potential of the short story form when put in the hands of a true artist. (May)
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.