The sad fact is that I read more mediocre, or even bad books, than I do good books; so when I read a terrific book I can’t help but want to pass along a recommendation. So here it is: get out there and order a copy of Amy Bloom’s new collection of short stories, Where the God of Love Hangs Out, which will be in stores January 2010.
Bloom, who worked as a psychotherapist for twenty years, has an uncanny ability to expose the psychological realities of her characters. More than once I found myself thinking of a clinically trained Henry James, and I mean that as a compliment. The focus is intimate, sensual, unflinching while deeply compassionate. I am embarrassed to admit this is the first thing I’ve read by Bloom, but it won’t be the last. I’ve now added her novel Away, and another collection of short stories, A Blind Man Can See How Much I love You, to my list. I can’t imagine where I’ve been, frankly, since Ms. Bloom has been the recipient of much acclaim, including National Book Award nominations, and National Book Critics Circle Award nominations as well as any number of reviews like the one from The New Yorker, for A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, which states, “Amy Bloom gets more meaning into individual sentences than most authors manage in whole books.”
In this collection, Bloom examines the many forms of love. Two sets of linked stories, which are really novellas, sit at the book’s core. Both are concerned with a different set of unlikely couples. One, the stories of “William and Clare,”begins with Clare and William falling into an affair that survives their respective divorces, their own marriage and the frailties and vulnerabilities of the end of life. The second set features Lionel and Julia, step-mother and son — it’s a messy, complicated story that had me wincing with discomfort more than once, but that managed to keep me glued to the page right through to the remarkable and moving conclusion. The four independent stories, while less intricate, are lovely as well. Astute, clear, insightful work all the way through.
An odd thing to say perhaps, but I’m a little surprised the stories work as well as they do since Bloom does what I constantly advise my writing students to avoid (and OH! how I’m going to hear about this in class!). She switches point of view at a somewhat alarming rate, particularly for the short story form. We move from one characters’ perspective to another, sometimes from one paragraph to the next, and more than once I found myself thinking, “What? Who’s thinking this? Who’s head am I in?” And having to go back a sentence or two to adjust. If Bloom established an omniscient point of view at the beginning of a story it would make these transitions more graceful, but she doesn’t. Rather each story begins with rather close-up psychological distance in a limited third person point of view. Thus, I get comfortable there, and except to stay in that point of view, with minor alterations to the psychological distance. It’s a bit jarring to suddenly pop into another character’s head.
Still,the confidence of Bloom’s prose, her flawless dialogue, and the authority with which she creates these characters’ worlds, both internal and external, more than make up for my point of view quibbles. I was much reminded of Elizabeth Stout’s wonderful Olive Kitteridge. Comparisons to Alice Munro’s work are also inevitable.
And Bloom has a fabulous way with an opening sentence. Consider these:
From the William and Clare series: “At two o’clock in the morning, no one is to blame.” “William has gout.””Clare can’t walk.” “No power.”
From the stand-alone stories: “I had always planned to kill my father.” “Terrible is terrible, Frances thought.” “Every death is violent.”
From the Lionel and Julia stories: “I was born smart and had been lucky my whole life, so I didn’t even know that what I thought was careful planning was nothing more than being in the right place at the right time, missing an avalanche I didn’t even hear.” “For fifteen years, I saw my stepmother only in my dreams.” “‘It’s six-fifteen,’ Lionel says to his stepmother. ‘Decent people have started drinking.'”
I sometimes suggest my writing students keep lists of possible first sentences. I’ll use these Bloom’s work as examples of why.
Bloom has said her favorite poet is Wislawa Szymborska whose poems often raise ethical and existential questions, and I suspect Bloom might claim Chekhov as one of her influences for the short story form, if asked. There is something of Chekhov’s open endings, his refusal to moralize, and his insistence that the writer should ask questions, not answer them that resonate here.
Read, enjoy…come to your own conclusions about where the god of love hangs out.