by Jean Roberta
Perennial: A Garden Romance by Mary Anne Mohanraj includes a sweet romance between a lonely divorced man (half-Scottish and half-South Asian) who runs a flower shop, and a lonely woman (apparently White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) who is diagnosed with breast cancer in a leafy town where she moved from New York City because her late uncle left her an older house which she decided not to sell.
The chapters of the romance are interspersed with simple, almost childish drawings, and free-verse poems. Here is one:
“Friends rush in for overdue mammograms, even the ones who were resisting going at all, afraid of what they’d find.
Husbands are kinder to their wives, hold them tight at night, seeing a future without them.
It can make you cranky; this should be about you, but now it’s also about them.
You let it go.
May something good come of this— more check-ups and kisses. We should all be kinder to each other, to ourselves.”
This little book seems to have been inspired by the author’s own bout with breast cancer in 2016 as well as her interest in gardening. (Both the progress of her cancer treatment and the development of her garden have been extensively posted about on Facebook.) This book would make an appropriate gift for a convalescent who needs reading-matter with a happy ending.
Read by Strangers, a story collection by Philip Dean Walker, is much more unsettling, and I wouldn’t recommend giving it to anyone who has already received bad news.
Confession: I haven’t finished reading the whole book, so my generalizations should be taken with caution. So far, I haven’t found any supernatural elements in the stories, but real life in middle-and working-class American families is shown to be sufficiently uncanny.
In the first story, “Unicorn,” a group of kids explore an abandoned farmhouse their parents have warned them to stay away from. One bedroom is still incongruously decorated with images of unicorns. The barn (now burned to the ground) was the site of a tragedy: the teenage daughter tried to ride a horse which she had been forbidden to ride, and since the horse didn’t know her, it kicked her in the head, killing her and leaving the imprint of a hoof on her forehead. There is evidence in the house that she had been trying to escape from something unspeakable.
In “Revolution,” Anna is in a long-term marriage with Hank when she suddenly discovers a sister she never knew about before: her mother’s first, unplanned child, who was raised by an adoptive family. The intrusion of the sister, Billie, changes the dynamics in Anna’s own family.
In the wittily-titled “Hester Prynne Got an A,” the mother of a teenage daughter seduces the male English teacher on whom the daughter has a crush, discovers that her son (the daughter’s twin brother) is gay, and shows that the welfare of her youngest child (a daughter who seems eerily calm and cheerful and therefore abnormal) is more important to her than trying to recapture her reckless youth.
Another wittily-titled story, “Brad’s Head Revisited, ’94,” shows the long-term effects of homophobic bullying in high school on one of the bullies (or a sidekick of the ringleader) rather than on the victim. Here the narrator seems disarmingly direct:
“I fuck for money and I like it. The studio tells me how good I am, how much money I bring in, how I look even hotter on film, like a god. Just like a fucking Adonis.”
Do you detect a note of defensiveness? This story is discomforting, especially considering the allusion to Brideshead Revisited, a novel of privileged English life in the 1920s, in which an envious outsider shows the lifestyle of a titled family from which the gay son is exiled.
The narrative voice in Walker’s stories is clear and unadorned, and much of the explication takes the form of dialogue. Most of the characters seem to be trapped in unsatisfying situations, and they can’t find a way out. Even in the first-person stories, an omniscient, well-read narrator seems to be hovering above the characters, unable or unwilling to give them enough perspective on their lives to provide them with any relief.
The stories are well-crafted, but if read in bed, they lead to depressing dreams.