I was totally unfamiliar with the American short story writer Edith Pearlman until earlier this year, when I saw her name and her latest collection, Honeydew, on a list of likely candidates for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (eventually won by Thanh Viet Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer). Honeydew didn’t end up on the short list, but I’d already bought it and I’m stubborn like that. Most of the stories in the book run around 10-12 pages yet manage to create totally believable, well-rounded little worlds, usually with at least one three-dimensional character, yet with a very light touch that keeps the prose moving.
Pearlman’s stories focus on some little detail of ordinary life and exploring its effects on one or more of the characters, but all seem to tie around the idea of finding enough happiness to get by. Several stories are set in or around an antique shop in the fictional Massachusetts town of Godolphin, owned by the slightly eccentric Rennie, who lives by a very specific code in dealing with her clients, but seems less able to apply similar rules and limits on her own life. We experience her shock, when, for example, the wife half of a couple who frequently shop with her falls ill and requires hospice care, and the husband refers to Rennie as one of her closest friends. But is this the sadness of a woman who was simply without friends, or is the problem Rennie’s for failing to recognize the meaning she held in someone else’s life?
In “Hat Trick,” four teenage girls are mooning over boys when one girl’s mother, a bit drunk and bitter, concocts a game where the girls put the names of various boys on slips of paper and place them in a hat, to be drawn at random but never revealed; each girl then must pursue the boy whose name she drew. It is a realistically-drawn fable; the girls take the pledges seriously, or at least three of them do, and the results, while hardly what the reader might expect, feel real. Each girl pursues happiness and finds some – the “happy enough” bit I mentioned above comes directly from the mother in this story – even though her fate was determined by a sort of rigged random draw.
“Castle 4,” one of the longest stories in the book, has a bit of a Hollywood ending, but the core character, the introverted anesthesiologist who rejects copious advances from women (dude, what are you doing), is so alienated from other people that you can feel cold just reading about him. He drifts through the job and social functions like a shade, making only the barest minimum of contact with others, yet his story resolves when he falls for a patient whose back pain turns out to be terminal, stage 4 cancer. The conclusion is forced, but his attraction to a woman who has been forced into an isolated state by circumstance fits with the way Pearlman has defined his impalpable character.
The title story ends the collection but was one of my least favorites in the book, as it’s less realistic and uncharacteristically overwrought. The headmistress at a girls’ prep school in New England is concerned about an anorexic student, yet is having an affair with the girl’s father, and is six weeks’ pregnant with his child. None of the characters gets the full development of those in other stories, although Pearlman does write brilliantly about the eating disorder itself, and there’s the whiff of the hackneyed in the setting itself.
There’s a bit of dry wit in many of her stories as well, which helps keep the stories moving even when the themes could be depressing, none more so than in “Blessed Harry,” in which a Latin teacher at that same prep school gets an out-of-the-blue invitation to speak at a conference in England on “the meaning of life and death.” The teacher’s kids, sporting varying degrees of cynicism, all immediately suspect it’s a hoax, while he at first allows himself to soak in the feeling that he’s wanted, that he’s been more of a success in his working life than he actually has. It’s a bit more respectable than a 419 scam, but Pearlman milks it for humor before the teacher begins to realize where the success and meaning in his own life lie. These little moments of grace or insight in an existentialist context, coupled with her ability to quickly define and fill out her characters, carried me through Honeydew as if I were reading a single, gripping narrative.
Next up: Connie Willis’ Bellwether.