Despite my plans to be super active during May, Short Story Month (!!), I have failed. Miserably. But in celebration of 20/20 hindsight, June will be a month of rehashing things I’ve read and sharing my thoughts and reactions, right here. First up: If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This by Robin Black. I first heard about this collection at the Fiction Writers Review (where it received a passionate review). I entered into the comment contest, gushed about Jincy Willett’s Jenny & the Jaws of Life, and hoped I’d win it. The end of the contest wasn’t scheduled until May 31st, so I checked it out from the library. I found out yesterday that I won a copy of the book just as I finished reading it, relieving me from having to renew the library’s copy several times.
There are ten stories in this collection, six of which I absolutely loved. Over the next week, I’ll review some of the stories from the collection. Collections are often reviewed as one, something I find terribly unfair to each story, let alone each story’s author. No matter the packaging, the relation, or the marketing campaign, each story is a labor of writing, editing, love, hatred, and that gnawing feeling that, yes, I do believe I’m done. It’s a feeling I’ve never learned to trust since each time I reread my own writing it’s changed in some way, no matter for better or worse, but it’s different. The aliveness of stories is both what I love about them and fear about them. Either way, story #1:
“A Country Where You Once Lived”
I’ve decided to go in no particular order, and since this story made the largest impact on me, I figured I’d start with it. It’s the eighth in the collection, and one of the most beautiful in all meanings of the word. This story highlights Black’s ability to show all of the gaps and empty points in life that are so painful against the backdrop of fuller times and possibilities—past or unrealized.
The setup is simple: estranged father visits his daughter and the son-in-law he has yet to meet. Ex-wife is present and molded into his daughter’s life the way he can never be because of his absence. At first he’s thankful of the “bustling, comic scene” that marks his reunion with his daughter Zoe. He revisits this moment of nicety when the weekend comes to an abrupt and tragic end, realizing only too late “that he’s gone about this all wrong…This meekness. This civility. Why did it never seem real to him that time was a limited quantity?” (205) He’s angered by the memory of the polite way their reunion played out, of his passive observation of each moment when “[h]e should have taken Zoe aside and begged for her forgiveness right away” (205).
I suppose my favorite part is Jeremy, whose eyes we use to view the situation. He has a very human filter for the actions, words, and intonations of those around him. Zoe leaves dinner early for reasons we discover the next day, but Jeremy has to try “not to take either her weariness or her early exit personally” (197). Even after tragedy strikes and he discovers his daughter’s fragility and the heartbreaking reasons for her newfound softness, he remains wrapped up in the details of his life away from her. He fears Zoe’s rejection of him and her judgment for his abandoning her; he deserves both and receives neither. He discovers this ongoing misperception in the end, just in time to be ushered out of the picture once more. The closing scene of the story works in two ways: as an illustration for the intricate folds we make in our lives and the lives of others, and as reinforcement of Jeremy’s inability to fully understand and recognize that concept.
What I Wish I’d Written:
Even before hating the answer he had to give, he hated the tone in which she asked. A reluctant, eggshell-walking tone. As though she knew she was in danger of learning something about him she wouldn’t like. Her voice, always low, both deep and quiet, seemed to emanate from somewhere close to the ground. Her hand tightened its grip on his—as though defiant against the impulse to unclasp it. (187)
Black, Robin. “A Country Where You Once Lived.” If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This. Random House; New York, 2010.