Wednesday, April 22, 2015
Book Review: From Here
4 Stars - Highly Recommended to fans of short stories full of disappointment and unfulfilled dreams
As I read Jen Michalski's From Here, I became aware of an overwhelming urge to find her and hug her. To just pull her head to my chest, pat her hair, and squeeze her until all of the sadness in her stories has been replaced with playful puppy dogs, rainbows, and happily ever afters.
Her stories are like a never ending parade of subtle suffering. In them, she forces her characters to live with their loneliness. She traps them in abusive relationships and broken homes. She smacks them in the face with unrequited love. She punishes the fathers - they are dead or dying, withering away from cancer. Or they are just a bunch of deadbeats, walking away from their pregnant wives and drinking themselves silly. And she punishes the animals too. As with any other author, dogs, rabbits, birds, beware. Your lives are not safe in her hands!
Of all of her stories, Dog Days bothered me most. In it three young brothers find themselves at the baseball park, taking turns throwing and hitting, when the youngest befriends a stray mutt. Just as they each begin to picture the dog as a part of the family, the oldest hits a line drive straight into the dog's head. The dog, of course, drops like a stone and never gets back up. The youngest is devastated and one of his brothers tries to console him by saying "at least he died happy". Sure, the dog might've died happy, enjoying the attention the boys threw his way, but what about me, us, the reader? Now we have to live with the death of that poor, innocent dog. We're left to picture him, laying there in the dirt and grass of the outfield. Hearing the dull thud of the ball as it connected with his skull. And we're left with the what if's. What if she hadn't killed him? Would the boys have brought him home? Would their mother have given in and allowed them to keep him? Would he have spent the rest of his days there with them, in a comfy home, taking turns sleeping in their beds?
They didn't all pull on my heart strings are strongly. Some just aggravated me. Not in a "boy this story sucks" way, but in a "are girls really this cruel" way. In Lillian in White, Lillian calls up an ex boyfriend and asks if he'd accompany her to the abortion clinic.She's totally playing the guy here with the whole "I didn't know who else to call" crap. He's still pining for her something awful and thinks this is his opportunity to get back with her, especially when he learns that the baby-daddy ran out when he found out she was pregnant. Will he get what he wants, or is she just toying with his emotions? Do all girls run back to the "nice one we let get away" in times of turmoil? Is this what we put those poor guys through? Of all of Jen's stories, this one felt the most familiar. I had the impression I've read it somewhere before.
In contrast to Lillian, who chose to abort her child, there's Carlotta in The Mural, who really wanted her baby but miscarried mid-term. The father, much like Lillian claimed, took off when he heard the news, so now Carlotta is left alone with the empty nursery and her visions of the mural she was going to paint for it. Pushed by her doctor, instead of letting the death of her child steal her creativeness, she releases it in a unique and therapeutic way.
A girls get sucked into a dangerous relationship with a small time drug dealer in The Safest Place. In You Were Only Waiting For This Moment to Arrive, a divorced dad sees his daughter for the first time in two years and takes her Disney World, knowing that the trip will remain with her for the rest of her life while the memory of him and their relationship has already begun to fade.
Both of the main characters in From Here and The Substitute find themselves back in their home towns, caring for their dying fathers. In both stories, these characters had to give up the things they loved and live with the regret and frustration that comes along with it.
Each story has a strong sense of place and Jen douses her characters will their own unique voice. The collection reads quickly but the stories have a tendency to linger. They remain in the periphery, haunting the sidelines. They are tender and hesitant. Michalski seems reluctant to allow them to let go, and so they ache within you long after their stories are over.
The unifying thread, the thing that Jen took pains to infect her characters with, is resilience. It's her characters' unwillingness to let these situations, these decisions, these shitty times stop them from actually living that keeps you reading. Though they don't typically get what they want, they don't seem to dwell on it for long. They pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and turn the other cheek. We get the feeling that, in the end, things will work out for them, even though we have no proof of it.