By Amy Bloom
Random House. 206 pp. $25
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Reviewed by Susan Balée
Oh, love. So infinite in its varieties, so unpredictable in its objects. Love lights us up when we least expect it, and sometimes we burn for the strangest people.
Consider old friends William and Clare, married forever to other people, who find themselves together one night watching the bombing of Kabul on her living-room TV. While their spouses snore in other rooms, they inexplicably begin making out and Clare thinks, "It does not seem possible that we are people with three children, two marriages, and a hundred and ten years between us."
Of course, it is possible, it's just not likely. Amy Bloom knows as well as Shakespeare that the course of true love never did run smooth - but its bumpiness makes for great stories.
Few people are happy for adulterers, as Clare finds out when she brings William to see her uncle. "He makes you feel so young?" David sang. "He makes you feel like spring has sprung, songs must be sung? Like that?" . . . "No. You don't have to be ugly about it. I think . . . I make him feel alive." . . . David shook his head. "I'm sure you do. That's what these things are for."
Nor are all people happy for gay lovers, or mixed-race lovers, or lovers whose ages are vastly different. But the disapproval of observers doesn't stop love from bringing all kinds of people together, to savor joy and taste grief. Bloom follows all their paths, with deep compassion and rich, witty prose.
Some of these stories are recycled from Bloom's earlier collections, Come to Me and A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, but they hold up very well on a repeat reading. I found myself laughing again at some of the wonderful dialogue. For example, one woman laments her brother-in-law's poor romantic choices: "All I'm saying is, just once, let him bring someone who isn't a psycho, a slut, or a Martian. Just once." A secular mother, surprised by her sons' praying: "We never made you guys say your prayers, we certainly never went to church, and we kept you far from Grammy Ruth's Never Forgive Never Forget Pentecostal Church of the Holy Fruitcakes. And there you two would be, on your knees to Jesus, praying to be six feet tall."
Years ago I took a fiction workshop with Bloom at the Wesleyan Writers' Conference, where she taught every summer. Now I know her thoughts on such gatherings, because in the title story of this collection, her character Macy goes to such a conference and thinks: We're like the people at Lourdes or the ones who go to the mud baths of that disgusting town with the sulfurous pools that everyone dunks themselves in, except we've brought our poems and short stories and inexpressible wishes, instead of scrofula and dermatitis. Ouch! But a very funny ouch, nevertheless.
Bloom, who is a psychotherapist as well as a writer, writes with great insight about our noblest emotion. Her compassion for her characters makes us care about them, too. Even the nastiest people are capable of redemption, as she shows in "Between Here and There." In this story, a girl dreams of killing her abusive father, while her brother "drew cartoon weather maps of my father's feelings: dark clouds of I Hate You, giving way to the sleet of Who Are You, pierced by bolts of Black Rage."
This father humiliates his children and his wife publicly and privately; when the kids grow up and can get away, they do. They find loving partners, but the daughter comments, "You will have noticed that neither of us has children." Nor do they abandon their father, even after their mother's death, and Bloom shows time can work miracles on even the most obdurate personalities. Benevolence is the animating spirit of these stories, which is why you'll feel good when you finish this book, and good in a profound rather than a superficial, sappy way. Bloom's message is simple and powerful: People do the best they can, and love ennobles them.
Of course, as another mistress of the short story, Grace Paley, once aptly observed, "Time makes a monkey of us all." Sooner or later, death shows up to sever the tightest relationships. These tales have their share of grieving. "By-and-By," which owes too much to Jim Crace's deconstructive masterpiece Being Dead, nevertheless pays homage to the feelings of survivors. Its narrator, remembering lost loves, thinks, "I miss every piece of my dead. Every piece is stacked high like cordwood within me, and my heart, both sides, and all four parts, is their reliquary."
Amy Bloom's latest, like all her previous books, is a keeper.