Standing Witness

I’ve read much of Amy Bloom and consider her one of the most skilled and personally affecting contemporary short story writers I have ever encountered—but reading her latest collection, Where the God of Love Hangs Out, was still a surprise. That is, I was jarred by how good she was. Why have I forgotten? Why don’t I remember the specifics, only vaguely recalling that she’s spot-on, funny, touching, occasionally absurd, occasionally scandalous, disturbing, sexy? Why do I remember that I gave away an extra copy of her earlier collection, Come to Me, to a boy I’d known for ten minutes (and never did get to meet again after that day)?

Moreover, why, after months of pining over the hardcover, and then finally being able to read this collection in its paperback format—why did I dawdle, why did I expect to be disappointed, to feel Meh about Bloom’s work?

Then. That jarring turn of the page: that first story, a shock—so was the rest of the quartet that followed the course of an unlikely, baffling love, a confounding infidelity, of two middle-aged friends who happen to be married to other people. Indeed, Clare the narrator, quite glibly, states, “Charles and William are friends, Isabel and I are friends. It is all just as bad as it sounds.

Even if it’s so odd and unexpected for all concerned—and Bloom makes that point clear, in the guise of flighty, oddball, awkward talker Clare—it still feels so honest. Earnest, even if it doesn’t make sense in their real world. That odd balance between What the hell are these people thinking? and the reader being privy to the characters inner lives, that ultimately gives everything perfect sense. Never mind [or, especially because?] the characters themselves are still trying to figure it out.

You walk away from the quartet feeling as close as can be to these people—you walk away thinking that this talkative woman and this gout-ridden guy make up one of the best literary couples ever. That first story may inspire this thought, but the three that followed—and the imaginings left to the reader to console herself with—cements that.

And this continuity was crucial to the impact Bloom’s stories had on me, to its affect. Of the twelve stories, there are two quartets. Four stories which are excellent on their own, but as a collective manages to create a cohesive whole. Bloom’s continual revisiting of her characters, tracing their growth, allows the reader to stand witness to real lives—and doesn’t that fulfill one of reading’s rewards? The reader builds a rapport. You become increasingly invested in these people.

[Despite the quartets being this collection’s strongest points, there’s the same quality in the stand-alone stories. See, this is a fantastic book, a really, really strong collection. Always present: that wit, that instinctive rightness of the narrative, the complexity of the characters established in comparatively few pages. Also, that shriek-inspiring habit of Bloom’s: killing off characters in a precise, hit-you-between-the-eyes sentence. Dammit. However, I still can’t help but wish I would meet these people again.]

The one other quartet follows yet another unlikely love story. It begins with the aftermath of a death—Julia’s husband has died, leaving her to raise their son and his son from a previous marriage. When we’d normally find a character like Julia struggling to move forward, Bloom injects an additional conundrum: How to be a mother to a grown stepson who climbs into bed with you that decisive night following a funeral?

And then, Bloom follows that up with three more stories, and we are drawn closer not only to Clare and Lionel, Jr., but their messy, expanded family as well. We discover fifteen years of silence, we see hints of consequences and guilt and genuine curiosity about how the other is truly feeling. We see people grow up, we see people grow old, we see people die. There are undercurrents, lots of them—some discomfittingly sensual—and the characters would glance upon that persnickety elephant in the room. But along with that is the gradual but confident building of a life, of a family.

It’s been a long time since I’ve met characters who so strongly resonate, and I have to thank Bloom for her investment in her characters, among so many good things she brought to this near-perfect book.

PSA: Where the God of Love Hangs Out by Amy Bloom [PhP609 in paperback] [PhP1049 in hardcover] is available in National Bookstore.

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