by Rob Davidson
Every good story collection has its governing metaphors, those common notes that blend the individual crooners into a concert of voices singing harmony. Restlessness defines the spirited characters in Patricia Henley’s fine new collection of short fiction, Other Heartbreaks. In these stories, people’s lives break down and are reassembled; there are changes of allegiance and sexual orientation; there are moments of great sweetness and moments of insufferable loss. As one narrator puts it, these are tales of “broken hearts, mended hearts, eternal stories of love lost and gained.”
Henley moves across the territories of her stories with deceptive ease, ranging back and forth in time, layering with moves both small and large, gradually filling in the context for a dramatic present that is always tied in interesting and complicated ways to the past. Henley’s stories require (and reward) a reader’s patience. “Sun Damage” is a fine case in point. Meg is adept at travel and reinventing herself. She’s changed her name a few times. She likes to keep moving, to keep things new. After her father’s death, she returns home to see her mother and younger brother with a “reluctant heart.” We gradually learn why: returning home means confronting some difficult memories concerning the mother’s brutality. These are “Secrets she knew how to keep…. Memory serves us in ways that allow us to go on with a little dignity. She could stand to recall everything. But there was no sense telling everything. At some point what you told became only gossip on yourself, stirring up old trouble. And no good can come from that.”
As “Sun Damage” concludes, Meg is hard at work coming to grips with her difficult past. Her mother, who has also changed, reaches out: “Don’t be afraid of me, Meg.” Meg tries, but it isn’t easy. With every new step she takes, she feels the tug of memory. This is as it should be. In “The Art of Fiction,” Henry James famously declared that “Experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web of the finest silken threads… catching every air-borne particle in its tissue.” This is the atmosphere of Other Heartbreaks: a finely-wrought web of memories, fears, and hopes connected to a tender, tenuous present.
Relationships between women are paramount in Other Heartbreaks. In “No Refunds in Case of Inclement Weather,” Ellen and Claire, an autumn-spring lesbian couple, slowly grow apart. Claire’s old flame Tommy, a widower, needs a companion and a stepmother to his young child. Claire is ready to play those roles. In a wrenching conclusion, the much younger Ellen spies this nascent family at play in a park, watching as her partner embraces a man with tenderness and love—precisely what’s been lost in her own relationship with Claire. Ellen cannot deny the obvious: “What they have is so pure that they didn’t even feel guilty when I walked up,” she remarks. Ellen learns that “love is stronger than guilt. Not that it’s pure, only stronger.” It’s a hard lesson, and one Ellen will both accept and act upon.
Place and character have always been tightly joined in Henley’s fiction. In the section of this collection entitled “Other Heartbreaks” we find a series of three interwoven stories about a family in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. Joe, descended from the eastern Europeans who settled the neighborhood many decades ago, is loath to leave; the name of his baseball memorabilia shop, Home Plate, says it all. Joe clings to his past—embodied in his uncle’s decrepit country farmhouse—even as it rots around him.
Joe’s wife, Emma, longs for new adventure and travel. In the second story in the sequence, “Emma Compartmentalizes in Ireland,” she distances herself both literally and figuratively from her family. What she finds overseas is oddly liberating. Danny, Emma’s former student, has dumped his wife and run off with another woman; Danny’s mother enjoys an active life as an older, single woman; and Danny’s friend, the joyous, flirty Liam, is divorced but on surprisingly good terms with his ex-wife even as he dates other women. Emma finds it all rather inspiring, and in one of the most powerful endings in a book filled with powerful endings, she prepares to do something that will almost certainly lead to the end of her marriage. “It comes to her,” Henley writes, “not all at once like a pearl of wisdom, but in distasteful increments…. And walking down to find Liam, she blinks back tears, thinking—but not for long—of how she has deceived herself. And will.”
Such is the ethos of this powerful collection. Henley’s characters don’t have Joycean epiphanies. They roll and tumble through life, take bold risks, allow themselves to do the things they finally feel they must. Other Heartbreaks is a good and honest book, true in every way that matters. The stories are polished, exquisitely-cut gems, written in the sharply-observed prose we’ve come to expect and treasure from this master of the form.
Other Heartbreaks: Stories
Indianapolis: Engine Books, 2011.
178 pages / $26.95 hardcover, $14.95 paper, $6.99 E-book