Discovery as a Lifetime Habit: Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision

BY CONOR BROUGHAN

Pearlman2Sycamore Review is honored to publish “Last Words,” a new story by Edith Pearlman, in our forthcoming Winter/Spring 2011 issue. On January 11th, Lookout Books published a volume of her new and selected stories which we review below. Be sure to check back for an interview with Edith Pearlman at the end of the month.

Edith Pearlman has published more than 250 works of short fiction and short non-fiction in national magazines, literary journals, anthologies, and on-line publications. Her work has been selected by Best American Short Stories, the O. Henry Prize Collection, Best Short Stories from the South, and The Pushcart Prize Collection. Her essays have appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Smithsonian, Preservation, and Yankee. Her travel writing has been published in the New York Times, The Boston Globe, and salon.com. She is the author of four collections of stories: Vaquita (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997), Love Among The Greats (Eastern Washington University Press, 2002), and How To Fall (Sarabande Press, 2005), and Binocular Vision, published by Lookout Books in January 2011.

In Edith Pearlman’s story “Aunt Telephone,” one of thirteen new stories that Lookout Books has collected with twenty-one of Pearlman’s best published work in the new volume Binocular Vision: New & Selected Stories, neighbors in Godolphin—Pearlman’s recurring fictional Boston neighborhood—call on the unmarried child psychiatrist Milo when their own children give them trouble. The narrator describes how the children of the neighborhood learned of their parents’ concerns by becoming “masters of domestic wiretapping—slipping a forefinger between the receiver and the button on which it rested, lifting the receiver to our ear, releasing the button with the caution of a surgeon until a connection was soundlessly established.” Reading the thirty-four wonderful stories collected in Pearlman’s Binocular Vision gave me the feeling of standing in the upstairs hallway, hand over receiver and furtively listening in on conversations too honest or too revealing to ignore.

A reader unfamiliar with Edith Pearlman’s distinguished career, which includes three appearances in the Best American Short Stories series, two Pushcart appearances, and published three times in the O. Henry Collection, may think from the above description that she is merely a master of the domestic drama. However, this long overdue volume reveals that Pearlman is so much more, offering stories that take place in a variety of eras and locals, from London during the Blitz to post-war Central America, and from a cramped Jerusalem apartment building to a soup kitchen in Boston. No matter how long distance the conversations or how quiet her characters speak, Pearlman’s connections are invariably established with strong, clear prose and a depth that reveals itself in each story and every character in the collection.

Standout stories, if I were forced to choose, include the linked “If Love Were All,” “Purim Night,” and “The Coat” about a young woman Sonya who works for the American Joint Distribution Committee during World War II. In London, she hides a young, talented Jewish musician who, along with an elderly neighbor who also is a musician, becomes something like her family in a displaced world. Eventually she must lose those she loves most, as she does in “Purim Night,” because it is the nature of her work to redistribute Jewish refugees to temporary safe-havens.

Some of the finest stories in the collection are stories of young women who learn of darker corners of their worlds through the behavior of the adults around them. In the titular story told from the first person point of view, a young girl is shocked by the suicide of a neighbor that she had spent months spying on with her father’s binoculars. She is shocked not because he died or the grisly manner in which he carried it out, but because she learns that there is so much in the world that she does not know and feels unprepared for the “complicated world of adults.” In contrast, the most affecting new stories at the end of the collection deal with elderly couples forced to renegotiate their lives together as they age. In the contagiously charming story “Capers,” a couple attempts to make a new connection well into their golden years—one that could rival their most passionate younger selves—by shoplifting.

In all of her stories, Pearlman writes with a restraint that is mesmerizing. She writes honestly and without judgment of even her most complex and misguided characters, and she never falls prey to melodrama or overwriting. At the end of the story “Lineage,” a doctor who speaks Russian is asked to translate a story that a dying Russian woman has told. The woman claims she is from the royal bloodline after her mother had an affair with Tsar Nicholas before his murder. In Russian, the doctor tells the dying woman that her secret is safe, but when the curious American doctors ask for a translation, she says it had been a “folktale, more or less.” She willfully understates the old woman’s tale so that the power of the story, and their secret, will not be diminished. The same could be said of Pearlman’s writing, which values the uncanny in the otherwise mundane, but honest moments over epiphany and revelation. Like the protagonist of the wonderful new story “The Little Wife,” who travels to Maine with her husband to visit a dying friend because she believes that even in death there is something to learn, Pearlman shows in her stories—both old and new—that discovery for her has been “a lifetime habit.”

Binocular Vision
Edith Pearlman
Lookout Books, University of North Carolina Wilmington
392 pages – $18.95 pb
January 11, 2011
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Conor Broughan lives in Lafayette, Indiana with his wife where he is an MFA candidate in fiction writing at Purdue University and the Fiction Editor at Sycamore Review.