Heartfelt stories about the highs and lows of marriage
‘Two people agree to lock themselves in together, in defiance of reason and the Dissolutions column, and we celebrate it every time,’’ marvels Jenny, who narrates this collection’s final story, “Beloved, You Looked Into Space.’’ She’s talking about marriage, the theme all these stories are coiled around and from which they often spring into unexpected realms.
“Beloved, You Looked Into Space,’’ unlike most stories, has at least a dozen fully developed characters. There are five or six main events, some going back a generation or more in history, each dependent on the others for context and meaning, and all essential.
“Our father married a woman who took an ax to a bear,’’ Jenny begins. “She did it to save her first husband.’’ But the story doesn’t end with that woman or either of her husbands. It ends with a tableau that quietly reveals the marriage of Rose and Garvin, at whose inn Jenny’s father and Gerda, “who took an ax to a bear,’’ are getting married.
In between, we observe more than a few other marriages and enough people to populate an epic: Jenny and her sister, Shelley; their mother, who died when they were very young, and their father, who grieved for 23 years; their aunt Karen, who cared for them after their mother died; Karen’s husband, Gil; Shelley’s lover, Diana; Jenny’s ex-boyfriend, Eddie; Gerda’s two sons and wives and children. And we hear the whole bear story in its disturbing detail.
None of this is random. The heart of this story isn’t the bear, or Gerda, or Jenny’s father. It’s Jenny herself, single again and trying to figure out what, exactly, brings some people together forever. Would she take an ax to a bear, for love? What did it mean if she couldn’t?
Twelve times, Valerie Trueblood (author of “Seven Loves’’) presents the panoramic and the particular entwined in an impossibly small package. Her complex characters effervesce; they tumble and spill off the page.
Another story, “Mance Lipscomb,’’ is about the divorce and almost-divorce of two couples who are best friends: Cy and Sheila and Joe and Kate. When Cy is unfaithful to Sheila, Sheila is enraged and humiliated, and the crisis spreads, touching everybody close to them. “Go ahead and get a divorce, I was going to kill myself anyway,’’ says their 14-year-old son, Ben. Sheila wants Cy to leave, but sometimes she doesn’t want him to leave, and Lynette, Sheila’s other best friend, reminds her: “You don’t have to let him go,’’ while Kate and an almost complete stranger help Sheila in other crucial ways to reach a kind of forgiveness with dignity. Then Kate divorces Joe.
“Tom Thumb Wedding’’ encompasses two distinct cultural eras, a generation apart, in 12 pages. Gaby, the little girl who once played the groom at a pretend wedding, and Lizzie, Susan, and Chris, who were pretend guests, reunite 30 years later. Their reminiscing is halted by the brief, terrifying appearance of Gaby’s troubled teenage daughter, Janna, who confronts on a daily basis realities too alien and brutal for the older women to imagine.
Trueblood’s language is unique and beautiful: In “Amends,’’ Francie, sentenced to 20 years in prison when she is barely out of her teens, gradually relearns the nature of time as “not a road heading somewhere but a space that filled up, like a vacuum cleaner bag.’’ In “Suitors,’’ unmarried Meg is at the age “between all the good ones being taken and the return of those same men, divorced, like salmon coming back up the river.’’
Trueblood’s feat is to compress and compress and compress, while every character in her pages still has plenty of elbow room, and nobody — including the reader — feels crowded.
Nan Goldberg, a freelance writer and book critic, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org