Between repulsion and desire, they strain and twist
If parents insist on loving their children equally, readers don’t feel the same way about an author’s work. “I prefer your first,’’ the novelist hears at the launch party of her third. “Your fifth is my favorite’’ will be reported as the tenth hits bookstore shelves. To the novelist, it’s the new baby that counts; everything else is just so yesterday. But that’s not the case with a collection. The stories strung like pearls - real mixed with faux, big juxtaposed with small, gems padded with duds - are presented all at once, an even greater temptation for the reader to claim a personal best.
Maile Meloy’s impressive “Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It’’ hides no cubic zirconias among diamonds. The stories are all lustrous, the language as pristine as a lake in Montana, where several of them are set. Their good bones were already vetted by the Ivies, having been published in the New Yorker, Granta, Ploughshares.
In my favorite, “The Children,’’ Fielding arrives at his family’s lake house to find Jennie Taylor sitting at the kitchen table. Though he’d known her since she was a child, not too long ago he’d kissed her as a college girl. “It paled now, as a transgression, but at the time he had suffered the tortures of the damned.’’ Still tortured, he’s now faced with an embarrassment of riches - Jennie, the former object of lust, 32-year-old Eleanor, once his children’s swimming instructor and his current mistress, and a wife so competent you could stick her in the woods “and she would make tools out of nothing, build herself a shelter and tame the bears.’’ Though he hopes to run off with Eleanor, when his wife arrives, shoulders sweetly freckled, he vacillates. What will he do? Stay in “the habit of his marriage?’’ “He tried to determine if he was paralyzed with indecision or only mired in comfort.’’ Like all of Meloy’s characters, Fielding is “doomed to ambivalence and desire.’’ Holding his wife, he “felt himself anchored to everything that was safe and sure, and kept for himself the knowledge of how quickly he could let go and drift free.’’
In “Travis, B.,’’ Chet Morgan, crippled by polio and a fall under a horse, feeds cows, bucks bales and, to combat his loneliness, wanders into an adult ed class where he develops a crush on his teacher. On a fool’s mission of longing, he drives 600 miles to see her. He understands that “her world had lawyers, downtowns, and mountains in it. His world had horses that woke hungry, and cows waiting in the snow, and it was going to be 10 hours before he could get back to get them fed.’’ Nevertheless, he reminds himself they both know where the other lives. He has her phone number. Differences can both divide and be bridged.
Like Fielding, Sam, who sets off on a family river trip before she goes east to boarding school, has to decide whether to stay or leave in “Red from Green.’’ But her dilemma isn’t just over leaving home. At the campsite, her uncle’s client asks Sam to walk up and down his bad back. He touches her hip, slides his fingers up her thigh, setting off unfamiliar desires. Can she turn her own back on something that both repels and attracts her?
To stay or to leave is the question haunting many characters. Across these pages waltz old and new loves driven by the push and pull of fond memories and sorry regrets. In “Lovely Rita,’’ Steven and his best friend, Acey, both pine for Rita. After Acey dies and Rita vanishes, Steven moves to Florida. Happy there, he discovers, “Nothing here was his . . . he thought there should have been something sad about how little he was tied up with the place, but instead it felt like freedom.’’
In “O Tannebaum,’’ Everett and Pam, cutting a Christmas tree, pick up Bonnie and Clyde, strangers who have broken their skis and lost their car. “My first mistake was marrying someone named Clyde,’’ Bonnie admits. Other mistakes - adultery, stolen kisses, neglectful parenting - plague both families. Against Pam’s wishes, Everett invites the “outlaws’’ for Christmas. As soon as they leave the cold woods for the warmth indoors, “Everett felt both the threat of disorder and the steady, thrumming promise of having everything he wanted, all at once.’’
Order or Disorder? Cold or warmth? Freedom or safety? Such conflicts converge in a perfect storm of ambivalence, self-justification, and blind hope. Has ever a title been a more perfect match to its content? Meloy’s characters want it both ways. They covet their young mistresses and their age-appropriate wives; they hold their kids close and crave an empty nest; they long for solitude and companionship, marriage and divorce. Still, there’s often something they’re forced to sacrifice. We readers, however, get to have it all. We can dip into the collection savoring one delicious morsel at a time or devour the whole book in a single sitting. We can choose our favorites certain that while one person’s potato is someone else’s potahto, either way, in the gifted hands of this born storyteller, treats abound.
Mameve Medwed’s fifth novel, “Of Men and Their Mothers,’’ was recently published in paperback.