Thursday, August 9, 2012

Shout Her Lovely Name, by Natalie Serber

Shout Her Lovely Name is a collection of short stories about mothers and daughters; three are stand-alone stories, while the other eight are slices of the lives of mom Ruby and daughter Nora.

The title (and first) story is the most powerful. Written in the second person (with liberal use of the imperative), it captures the thoughts and feelings of a mother whose daughter is anorexic. Along with concern and fear, the mother feels anger toward her daughter and husband, and yearns for her life to be about her, if only momentarily. From the first sentences--"In the beginning, don't talk to your daughter, because anything you say she will refute. Notice that she no longer eats cheese. Yes, cheese: an entire food category goes missing from her diet"--to the last (see favorite passages), the emotions conveyed seem authentically intense.

The remaining stories don't have the emotional impact of "Shout Her Lovely Name," although the Ruby and Nora stories, which could be a book of their own, are engaging character studies. The first three stories are told from Ruby's perspective. In the first, she is a freshman at the University of Florida (the time seems to be the early 70s), coming home for a visit to her parents. Her mother rarely leaves the house, while her father rarely finds his way there. Before we realize subsequent stories are going to tell us much more about Ruby and her relationships, we know her models have been poor. In the second story, it is summer vacation and Ruby is waiting tables in the Keys, having just found out she is pregnant. In the third, she is living in New York with the father of her baby, Marco, who is trying desperately to get her to place her baby for adoption. When she decides to keep the baby, he brings all her belongings to the hospital in a single suitcase, with $500 and a note saying, "Forgive me."

The last five stories in the Ruby-Nora cycle are told from Nora's perspective, beginning when she is in the primary grades and ending when she is a young adult, struggling to find her way both romantically and professionally. Sadly, Ruby's emotional development seems to have stopped when she made the decision to keep her baby; although she is a high school teacher--and, the story "Take Your Daughter to Work" would suggest, a good one--at home she has a wine cooler in hand and a scheme for meeting guys in mind. With that kind of guidance--and a life that involves frequent moves--it's no wonder that Nora struggles. Yet  Natalie Serber has drawn her so well that we believe she has a moral center that will see her through.

The remaining two stories, unrelated to the others, tell two mothers' stories. One is a young mother, married to her former professor, on a flight to introduce their new baby to her in-laws. The other is a mother of alienated teenagers, adrift in her own life. Both stories are readable but lack the impact of the others in this well-worth-reading collection.

Favorite passage:
Open your arms wide. Your daughter is getting nearer. Know that it is up to her. Say her lovely name. Know that it is up to her. Shout her lovely name.

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