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Book Review

Capturing resilience of the human spirit

Short stories are both humorous and grim

By Clea Simon
February 4, 2011

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Short stories are like miniatures: A delicate touch makes all the difference. In Edith Pearlman’s world, that light hand means choosing the perfect phrase to capture a moment or a mood. Often it leaves the reader breathless.

In “Binocular Vision,’’ a hefty collection of 34 stories, including 13 new ones, the Brookline-based Pearlman shows her unerring sense for the right words. Sometimes that means she plays with them, as in poetry or music, as in the story “Self Reliance.’’ In this beautiful and hallucinatory offering, a retired gastroenterologist, diagnosed with cancer, chooses where and how to die, and her musings take her from “not nowhere. Somewhere. Herewhere’’ to “elsewhere’’ in the course of a few pages.

Often those spare, almost austere phrases are sprung like little traps. In the title story, for example, a young girl uses her father’s binoculars to spy on the neighbors, imagining a life like and yet unlike her own family’s. Using a voice at once sophisticated and innocent, Pearlman has the young narrator note the details that connect with her experience: “a double bed with an afghan at its foot, folded into a perfect right triangle. This application of geometry to daily life gratified my critical ten-year-old self.’’ The kicker, when it comes, at once shows her how limited the narrator’s vision has been and throws her and the reader into the beginning of troubled adulthood.

Those little shockers, punch lines almost, work partly because Pearlman’s recurring topics are so serious: love and death, and the resilience required by both. Set all over the world, in different times during the last hundred years, and involving characters of all ages, these tales focus on the precise pivotal moments when life changes — often for the worse. Death and dying are common themes, while ill-fated liaisons, frequently involving incest, occur with regularity.

That’s not to say these stories are without humor, although that humor can be grim. An unwilling and somewhat peevish grandfather unexpectedly learns to love his adopted grandson while missing religious observances on Yom Kippur in “Day of Awe.’’ Another aging doctor, who fled Europe for a nameless South American country, remembers both her absent lover and the cow that kept her company as she hid during the Holocaust, in “Vaquita.’’ The parallels between the two — the lover was an opera singer who has emigrated to Israel — are subtle, but the self-aware doctor regards them both fondly. In “The Little Wife,’’ the narrator visits a dear friend with terminal cancer. The friend craves bacon that he can no longer digest, and the narrator becomes involved in a convoluted, but kind deception involving “this sliced back portion of some magnificent pig.’’ And in “The Noncombatant,’’ another dying man finds a moment of release with a bitter widow, their catharsis camouflaged as, all around them, a joyous Cape Cod town celebrates VJ Day.

In such a large collection, drawn from four decades, there are bound to be some misses. On the whole, these occur in the older works. It’s a pity that one such opens the book. “Inbound’’ relates a family misadventure from the viewpoint of a precocious child who gets lost in Harvard Square. Little Sophie “had learned to read at three; her vocabulary at seven was prodigious,’’ but her choice of words and the way the story drifts in and out of her point of view make her adventure unbelievable. A brilliant child can still be terrified when lost, or at least her parents should be.

Maybe that’s the advantage of such a large and varied compilation. Pearlman is a master of the form, and the majority of these stories are note-perfect. But by gathering some earlier pieces along with her newest work, this volume shows an artist who has never stopped developing.

Clea Simon, author of six mysteries, can be reached at cleas@earthlink.net.

BINOCULAR VISION: New and Selected Stories By Edith Pearlman

Lookout, 392 pp., paperback, $18.95