There are things we know about ourselves. I like coffee, love the smell of clothes drying; I am horrible with money. I survive on avocados, tomatoes, provolone cheese, hummus, tortilla chips and short stories. We’re always looking for things to enhance our day to day experiences, forget our troubles, multiply our blessings. I read short stories. Carver, O’Connor, Willett, Wallace, Garcia Marquez. Some days I stand in front of my bookshelf of story collections and anthologies trying to pinpoint my mood in order to pinpoint which book to take with me. Even if I don’t end up reading it, there’s a comfort in knowing it’s there under my arm, sitting on my lap, a defense against boredom or an underwhelming imagination. Short stories are a big part of my life, and I read so many of them, looking for one that gives me pause, makes me reread. Today, I found one.
Allegra Goodman’s “La Vita Nuova,” published in this week’s fiction section of The New Yorker is one of the most touching stories I’ve read in a long, long time. First, let’s deconstruct the word touching. No, this story wouldn’t fit in to an installment of a Chicken Soup for the Soul series, nor would it be a great choice to turn into a script and advertise before a Nicholas Sparks’ novel-turned-feature-film. I mean touching in the way that an addict might find a successful episode of Intervention touching. I could relate—though not necessarily to the broken engagement, the attached child, or the suggestive encounters with the protagonist’s employer. I related instead to the character’s wandering, the details of the city, the range of lives being lived as close as down the street and across the river, the redefinition of a city after a major change in life. I admit: I’m biased. I love Cambridge, Massachusetts. I live in Inman Square; I eat burnt sugar ice cream from Christina’s. I use public transportation to get most anywhere in and around the city. Goodman’s story serves as both a tribute to the city and to the dynamic population of people and their stories.
Beyond the raging crush I have on this city, Goodman writes a delicate story that appears to be facts and statements but is really a torrent of the emotions and decisions of growing up. These aren’t lessons you must learn like how to budget or do your taxes; these are circumstantial lessons that since not everyone must learn them, not everyone—or no one at all—understands. Amanda, whose fiance recently broke it off with her for unsubstantial reasons scattered throughout the narrative, isn’t an emotional wreck. She doesn’t sob or scream or lash about. Instead, she makes others uncomfortable; she’s blunt about what’s happened, about the finality and the scope of it. She brings her wedding dress into an art class she’s teaching and lets the kids paint all over it. She writes a card letting everyone know the wedding is off: “She wrote that she and her fiancé had decided not to marry. Then she wrote that her fiancé had decided not to marry her. She said that she was sorry for any inconvenience. She added that she would appreciate gifts anyway.” But the matter-of-factness that characterizes Amanda’s attitude evoked more emotion than apathy in me. It’s like watching someone relearning how to walk, putting new meaning to “one step at a time” and other hackneyed expressions. And this story bypasses many opportunities to give in to cliché, which Goodman sidesteps with varying talents of originality and what seems to be either firsthand experience or in-depth character and human studying. That line is rarely blurred—or done well, if it is.
In my writing classes, I always shied away from stories that took place in the city. Descriptions of the city and its neighborhoods in a classmate’s story always heightened my skepticism, turned me off a bit. It seemed a crutch, a literal and safe take on writing what you know—a piece of advice I’ve always felt dumbs fiction down and misses the point of it. But Goodman doesn’t rely on scenery to distract her characters or readers; the zoo and the Public Garden are just places that further reveal the nuances of her characters and their relationships.
Another confession: I’m a crier. I admit it doesn’t take much, but there’s something to be said for tearing up and displaying more emotion than the characters themselves. In the end, Goodman illustrates Amanda’s obscure emotions with two words repeated, “I know, I know.” When Nathaniel, the little boy Amanda takes a job babysitting, throws a fit over Amanda leaving—the leaving of someone he loves over which he has no control—we finally get to see everything she’s been feeling manifested in a childish way. She acknowledges, as do we—some with tears in our eyes—this very human frustration that we’ll probably experience many times in many ways. And it’ll probably never get easier.
What I Wish I’d Written:
It’s hard to be with you, her fiancé had said. I feel like I’m suffocating.
Open a window, Amanda had said.
Nathaniel was crying harder. He cried with his whole body. No one could get him to stop.
Amanda closed her eyes. She said she was sorry. She said, “Please stop.” Finally, she rocked him in her arms and said, “I know. I know.”