Short stories are not my favorite literary form; too often, I find myself asking "What?" when I finish a story. But I decided to give Joyce Carol Oates' new collection a try.
Dear Husband, (there's actually a comma in the title) begins with a story ("Panic"), in which a woman acts to protect her child in a moment of perceived danger; her husband feels abandoned, insignificant in the face of her mother-love. While the story is a sad reflection on human nature, it is cheerful compared to the tales that follow. Families are wracked with pain, and lives unravel (with the protagonist quite often providing the initial tug that begins the unraveling). Abigail returns to her family home to help her sister Helen move their father into assisted living and ends up nearly killing him. Aimee, scarred in an accident caused by her older, mentally challenged sister Sallie Grace (but blamed for provoking the shove that sent her into the stove, upsetting the boiling pot of spaghetti), leaves the scissors where she knows her sister can find and use them against another family member. A poet suffers a breakdown while her lover meditates at a Zen retreat; as he decides to call her for the first time in six weeks, she kills herself and their child.
Three of the stories are epistolary. One consists of a series of letters from a prisoner to the author, beginning with admiring notes requesting an autograph and devolving into paranoid threats. Another is a letter from an Andrea Yates-type character to her husband, explaining why she has just killed their children.
Upbeat this collection is not; as I progressed through the book, I felt a growing sense of dread. Yet Oates writes beautifully and I found myself drawn into the fully imagined situations she creates. Certainly, the vision of human nature and family relationships she conveys in these stories would provide ample fodder for a book group discussion.
Favorite passage (for law-related educators everywhere):
Voy deer is a procedure like running a clumsy and unwieldy substance--rags, young tree limbs--through a grinder. So slow! So exasperating!
Favorite story title:
"Suicide by Fitness Center"