Sunday, February 3, 2013

Signs and Wonders, by Alix Ohlin

Signs and Wonders is the third collection of short stories I've read recently, and it is by far my favorite of the batch. Ohlin does not rely on plot twists to make these stories work (although she does throw in an occasional twist); her tools are graceful writing, strong character development, and the ability to capture a situation succinctly.  Her subject matter is the development of identity, as an individual, a friend, a lover/spouse, and a parent.

The people who populate Ohlin's stories face difficulties, both self-inflicted and the result of circumstances beyond their control. Some of the difficulties and the ways people decide to navigate the troubles produce disturbing results (e.g., the music teacher whose husband cannot make her pregnant and therefore chooses to sleep with one of her orchestra students, the family that blames the new stepmother when a child disappears on vacation)--but those disturbing stories do stick with me!

Of the 16 stories in the collection, one of my favorites was "Bruno," in which a French teenager comes to visit his father in New York. The child was conceived on a vacation fling and has been raised by his French mother, with summer visits from his American father Art. But Art has missed several summers while undergoing treatment for testicular cancer. While Art thinks Bruno is coming for a visit, in fact Bruno and his mother have hatched a plot for him to stay in New York. As Art transitions from "vacation Dad" to parent, both child and adult change, inevitably and not necessarily for the better.

Another story I liked a great deal was "The Only Child." After her first year in college, Sophie's parents inform her that she is not an only child: they had a child before they were married. The child--a boy--had been placed for adoption but had recently reached out to his biological parents. As Sophie gets to know Phillip and his fiance Fiona, she reexamines what it means to be part of a family.

While not all the stories drew me in, I still think the collection is worth reading.

Favorite passages:
He'd worked at ICS for five years, and the line between it being a day job and a regular job had blurred to invisibility.

That's what marriage is, Tori's mother explained to her, a blame game. . . . This is why she doesn't usually confide in her mother because she makes these depressing pronouncements about life that all too often turn out to be true.

How long can always be to an 18-year old? Since you were 14? 16? since last week? . . . She seemed so happy, as if she'd proved something to herself, passed the test that only she knew the contents of, that she was grown up, he guessed. That she was allowed to make mistakes.

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