Book Review – If I loved You, I Would Tell You This
By: Mary Ickes
When searching for complex and compelling stories, Reading Friends, look no farther than these slice-of-life gems, Ms. Black’s first collection. I suggest a quick read-through for an overview, followed by studious re-reading in whatever order the stories appeal to you. I returned to Tableaux Vivant followed by If I Loved You, still my favorites. As the definition of slice of life dictates, the plots explore people in everyday circumstances.
Jack Snyder drives his daughter Lila to meet her first seeing-eye dog ; at her invitation, Jeremy Piper visits Zoe, his daughter he estranged thirteen years earlier. Claire, a widow still in denial three years after losing her husband to cancer, yearns for the life of Heidi who lost only her leg to cancer. Cliff purchases a country cottage, because he wants . . . to die somewhere beautiful. Jean, his wife, finds new life in the cottage long before his death. Cancer victim Ruth tackles familial dilemmas that her impending death contrives. An eleven-year-old protagonist, whose father has left home, befriends Harriet Elliot who announces, “My father tells me I’m a princess.” Kate, an embittered divorcee traveling in Italy, returns to the cathedral that she and her ex-husband visited forty years earlier. A mother, still coping with the death of her only sibling during grade school, counsels her teenage son after his best friend dies in a car accident. An aging portraitist, struggling to capture her subject’s aura, ponders love’s complexities.
As in real life, intertwining subplots could easily be main plots.
A man descending into dementia . . . sees himself leaving. . . . And he is grieving, for himself. A womanizer resents his ex-wife becoming a woman who would have held his interest. Parents agonize about moving their severely brain-damaged son to a medical facility.
Ms. Black transforms these dark, depressing topics into a veritable feast for perceptive readers. Every story is life straight-on, with nary a hint of the melodramatic or maudlin. Characters in denial are well aware of their defects — and the solutions. A divorced couple bond as they never could during their marriage. A father reproaches himself that . . . he’s gone about this all wrong. What happens next depends on each reader’s perspective, but rays of hope, however weak, shine through most of the stories.
Ms. Black’s writing, whatever the topic, is sublime. May-December marriage: The fifteen years between them had opened up as if blossoming, fifteen full-petal roses, expanding beyond what she had ever imagined possible . . . . Family life: Looking back, it seems like a dance, a four-person minuet comprised of steps toward and steps away, approaches and retreats, ending , finally, with each of them standing entirely alone. Old age: Death, which used to seem so remote, now feels
. . . as though it is everywhere, like the universally disliked relative who arrives early to every gathering and shows no discernible sign of ever going home.
The title story If I Loved You, with bullying pared down to bare essentials, is the most effective. I’ve read war stories, with hundreds dead, that left me less irate than the new neighbor proclaiming to the hapless couple next door that he will separate their properties with a six-foot fence of . . . solid wood . . . with no space or light between the slats. I re-read Gaining Ground only to confirm my initial impression that this was the collection’s least remarkable story. Though her situation deserves sympathy, the protagonist lacks the depth, intelligence, and sensitivity of her peers in the other stories.
The duty of a slice-of-life author is writing stories that readers perceive through their own experiences and relationships, making unanimous agreement impossible, but discussions lively. I’ve progressed from detesting Cliff, for subjecting family stability to his wanderlust, to considering him a pathetic old man. Who knows? I may grow to like him.
Not until the third time through the History of the World, did I decide that Kate deserved sympathy – maybe.
If you disagree with my conclusions, then Ms. Black has more than fulfilled her duty. If you are so eager to sympathize with Cliff that you can barely finish your initial read-through before returning to him, great. If you sob through an entire box of tissues with Kate in Italy, good for you. If you consider Gaining Ground to be the collection’s jewel, hooray!
And when you discuss these stories at your book club, good luck!
Robin Black graduated from the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers and has appeared at Malaprops in Asheville. The Chicago Tribune,
O. Magazine, and the San Francisco Tribune acclaimed If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This. Ms. Black states in her Bio that her writing is very much influenced by her belief that the most compelling act of creativity in which we all participate is the daily manufacture of hope.
Mary Ickes is curious which story you, Reading Friends, read first on your second reading. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.