Short stories can be a hard sell, but these shouldn't be. Lily King, whose last two novels went from a love triangle among anthropologists in New Guinea in 1933 (Euphoria) to a fledgling writer's travails in Cambridge, Mass. in 1997 (Writers and Lovers ), further demonstrates her range in this wonderfully absorbing first collection.
By range, we're talking emotional range in addition to time and place. Five Tuesdays in Winter features stories that pull you in instantly and make you wonder what the author is going to spring on you next. Sure, there are recurrent themes: the complicated relationships between suddenly single parents and their wounded, sometimes churlish only children; narrators who were already, in their teens, nascent novelists.
But there are also stories about a shockingly brutal encounter between former college roommates, one of whom has since come out as gay; about marriages gone south; about unexpected acts of kindness; and about a smart teen who fends off an assault when she realizes that sex "could be not special [even] with someone you liked." In the surreal final story — a tour de force, though not as affecting as the others — an aspiring writer, mother of three and daughter of belittling alcoholics who's frantic for writing time, literally slays her demons and insecurities to get the job done. There are also a couple of slight entries in the mix, but even they are redeemed by some lovely lines.
One of the collection's reluctantly single parents is a German woman whose husband dies while biking to work in Munich — leaving her with credit card debt, no life insurance, and a sullen preteen daughter who snaps at her cruelly: "I cannot listen to your voice anymore today." We meet the unhappy pair on a bleak vacation to the North Sea, in which the mother risks further debt by treating her daughter to horseback riding lessons. Even then, the daughter won't give her mother the satisfaction of showing her pleasure, never mind gratitude. King writes, "Adults hid their pain, their fears, their failure, but adolescents hid their happiness, as if to reveal it would risk its loss." But, of course, the daughter has also hidden her pain, and releasing it is what this story is about.
Among the single parents left in the lurch by unfaithful spouses, there's a Frenchwoman driving from Baltimore to Hatteras with her two kids to visit a friend for Easter, sorry that she can't afford to fly them home to Lyon. On the drive south, her daughter taunts her, challenging her mother's version of events, including a story about encountering a ghost in a palace garden in Austria, where she attended a ball in the very different life she led before she met her husband — a story which her ex has co-opted as his own. "I am not the liar in this family," the mother pushes back. As the hostile daughter keeps trying to catch her mother in falsehoods, the situation escalates to a stunning admission by the mother — one of several hard truths the poor girl faces up to on that trip.
All 10 of these tales build gratifyingly to moments of epiphany that never feel unearned. Some are dark, but even they offer moments of sweetness — such as the understanding concern shown by the longtime partner of the gay man after his painful encounter with his former college roommate. There's delightful generosity in the exuberant pair of house-sitting college sophomores who introduce their summer charge, an accidental late-life baby, to his first tastes of happiness while his troubled, detached parents vacation in the Dordogne without him. Many stories, including "When in the Dordogne," are told in retrospect, with the benefits of hindsight: "I can look back on that time now as if rereading a book I was too young for the first time around," the narrator says. The advantage of this structure is that it offers a satisfying glimpse of the character's future, beyond the confines of this particular pivotal chapter in their life.
If you're looking for a story as heartwarming as Writers & Lovers, you needn't look further than the title tale. "Five Tuesdays in Winter" features another jilted spouse left with an only child. Mitchell is a punctilious 42-year-old Maine bookseller frustrated by his unintellectual Portland clientele. (One woman comes in with color swatches, seeking books with covers that match them.) His wife left years ago, claiming he was "locked shut. She said the most emotion he'd ever shown her had been during a heated debate about her use of a comma in a note she'd left him about grocery shopping." From King's descriptions, we recognize his wife's complaints as valid, but we also know that Mitchell loves his now-preteen daughter Paula "so much his heart often felt shredded by it." Paula also knows this, and because she understands how capable of love her reticent father is, she is determined to find him a mate. You'll be rooting for this young matchmaker's success.
You don't have to root for King's success. Long form or short, this is a writer who has mastered the art of conveying depths of human feeling in one beautiful sentence after another.