Wednesday, March 06, 2013

30 Days of the Flannery O'Connor Award: Day 2

Jessica Treadway on Hester Kaplan’s THE EDGE OF MARRIAGE       

I didn’t read the nine stories in Hester Kaplan’s The Edge of Marriage so much as I experienced them – which is, in my opinion, the best thing you can say about a book. Sentence by sentence the prose is distinctive, assured, and wise (“Children grow when they sleep, but old people evaporate at night, they float toward the ceiling in little wisps, and every day there’s a lot less”;), but it is in the characters and their conflicts that this collection shines.

The stories’ circumstances are emotionally complex and ordinary at the same time, so that inhabiting them feels at once familiar and fresh; it’s easy to imagine our way in, but once we get there, we find ourselves exploring new psychic territory by virtue of Kaplan’s gift for describing the storm in a singular soul. The owner of a seaside resort trying to restore the place after a hurricane manages to attract a full house, then has to decide what to do when some complain that a guest visibly ill with AIDS is ruining their vacation. A man trying to protect his grown son lies to cover the son’s crime, but finds it compromises his relationship with his wife. A woman whose husband has been incapacitated in a car accident struggles with her decision to leave a man she no longer loves, but who can no longer take care of himself.

Kaplan is equally adept at portraying male and female perspectives; in fact, more than half of the collection’s nine stories are told by men, mostly in the context of marriage and fatherhood. In the poignant “From Where We’ve Fallen,” the narrator Davis violates his own moral code by implicating one of his employees, a young woman he likes and wants to protect, in a theft he knows his son committed. Then he fires the employee. Learning the truth, his wife says to Davis, “What a hateful thing you’ve done. What’s happened to you?” and she insists that for their own sake, he must tell their son to leave for good. “When I woke him,” Davis tells us, “I said the words, that he had to go and couldn’t come back, but I didn’t mean them. I didn’t even believe them.”

In the quietly moving “Goodwill,” a woman complies with her father’s request to sort out her deceased mother’s belongings and remove them from her parents’ bedroom. “There’s no way of knowing what a woman owns until she’s dead,” the narrator observes. “Until it’s time to clean out her closets and drawers to make room for something else, there’s no way of knowing what she needed, and wanted, to hide.”  

These are just a couple of examples of Kaplan’s skill, displayed abundantly throughout the book, at using simple language to portray complicated emotions. We never see the author’s hand, but her heart is all over the page.

She also shows a keen instinct for how and when to mix in a little humor with her drama. In the final compelling story “Live Life King Sized,” the resort owner Kip – who spends his days trying to balance his respect for Henry Blaze, who has come to the island to die, with the delicate obligation not to disgust his other paying guests – finds himself trying to justify his situation to his mother when she tells him, “I hear you’re running a leper colony down there.”

“Yes, a leper colony,” Kip replies. “We got body parts all over the place, but we can fit fifteen people in one bed.” Moments like these are what elevate Hester Kaplan’s fiction to real life: she makes us laugh and ache at the same time, and even though it may not feel comfortable in the moment, we are thoroughly grateful for both.   

Jessica Treadway is the author of PLEASE COME BACK TO ME (2010). She is an associate professor in the Department of Writing, Literature and Publishing at Emerson College in Boston. She is the author of Absent Without Leave and Other Stories, winner of the John C. Zacharis First Book Award, and a novel, And Give You Peace.