The book includes two four-story cycles, as well as four stand-alone stories. One cycle is about Claire and William, two professors married to other people. In the first story, they begin an affair (with their spouses in the same house with them), which languishes in stories two and three as both have health problems (William is obese, and Bloom gives a not-entirely-appetizing description of the challenges of sex with a very heavy man); in story four, they are married--happily--but William soon dies, leaving Clare bereft. The second cycle has many characters but is essentially about Julia and her stepson Lionel, who have sex the night after his father/her husband's funeral. This disastrous event scars both of them, but they eventually find their way back to a familial relationship--and then Julia is hit by a car and dies. Yes, so saucy!
The four stand-alone stories are also sad. "Between Here and Here" begins with the sentence "I had always planned to kill my father"--and you can understand why, when that father is so unmoved by his wife of many year's death that he doesn't think a memorial service is even worth discussing with his children. "Permafrost" may be the saddest story of all. Hospital social worker Frances is working with the family of Beth, a 13-year-old who has contracted necrotizing fasciitis. The parents are not doing well, and Frances is worried that Beth's will be Googling forms of suicide before she even gets home--and yet it is Frances whose life seems to shrivel over the course of the next decade, while Beth rises above her circumstances and her family. Perhaps I need not synopsize the remaining two stories (although the favorite passage is from one of them and I think you'll get the drift).
Bloom is a talented writer, the characters she creates are three-dimensional, and the situations she put them in are just unusual enough to capture your interest. So it's not that the stories aren't good. They're just so damn sad.
I don't miss the dead less, I miss them more. I miss the tall pines around Lake Pleasant, I miss the brown-and-gray cobblestones on West Cedar Street, I miss the red-tailed hawks that fly so often in pairs. I miss the cheap red wine in a box and I miss the rum and Coke. I miss Anne's wet gold hair drying as we sat on the fire escape. I miss the hot-dog luau and driving to dance lessons after breakfast at Bruegger's Bagels. I miss the cold mornings on the farm, when the handle of the bucket bit into my small hands and my feet slid over the frozen dew. I miss the hot grease spattering around the felafel balls and the urgent clicking of Hebrow. I miss the new green leaves shaking in the June rain. . . . I miss every piece of my dead. Every piece is stacked high like cordwood within me, and my heart, both sides, and all four parts, is their reliquary.