In an ordinary writer's hands, the fictional town of Clayborne would be just like a thousand other half-forgotten Midwestern farm communities: dusty and worn, a touch melancholy. In Beth Lordan's luminous first collection, however, Clayborne is invested with more than a little magic. And it's not just in the shape of the ghost who haunts the first story, "The Widow," or the impossible run of luck experienced by the protagonist of "Running Out." Lordan's magic lies not in the supernatural but in the simple, human sympathy that exists between her characters. In "The Cow Story," for example, two isolated people are brought together unexpectedly by a runaway cow and a tornado. Sitting out the storm together at a kitchen table, 50-something librarian Maude Nash and 50-something bachelor farmer Byron Doatze stumble from acquaintanceship to friendship to the possibility of something more in the course of one night. Comes the moment of truth, however, and "they sat there. Maude took her look and Byron took his look. They both saw, because they could still see clearly in spite of the candles and the rain and the dark and the nightclothes and Byron's sock feet, that it would be pretty hard to get from where they were into bed together. They saw that this, after all, was coffee and cookies and a warm dry house in a rainstorm, in spite of the tornado and the cow." But in Lordan's universe a coffee-and-cookies evening can still be transformed into something more--and is, in the beautifully crafted related story, "The Dummy."
Perhaps it is the interrelatedness of these tales that gives them a more novelistic scope than short fiction generally has. Locales such as Frenchie's Superette, the Rainbow bar, and the diner, and minor characters such as Reverend Parsons show up in story after story, providing the threads that tie this collection together. And once Lordan has you all moved into her little fictional community and caught up in the lives of its citizens, she delivers her pièce de résistance, the title novella. In this remarkable tale of two elderly sisters facing mortality, Lordan pulls out all the stops to craft a story that is tough, tender, and a testament to both her skill as a writer and her tremendous understanding of human nature. These are short stories that even people who don't like short stories will love. --Alix Wilber
From Publishers Weekly
The six short stories and one novella in this collection show Lordan's (August Heat) skill at weaving a dense tapestry out of the most mundane detail and the darkest secrets hidden from the closest relatives. Precise prose generously laced with subtle wisdom serves to heighten the ominous tone that pervades the stories, as if almost imperceptible earthquakes threaten to upset the precarious balance of her characters' lives. The title novella, a history of two sisters in their 80s who live together in a small Midwestern town, reveals how little they really know about each other. When a stroke leaves the younger sister paralyzed and interrupts a daily routine that has kept painful memories at bay?both sisters had been married, at different times, to the same man?the truth of their loneliness and regret emerges with frightening intensity. Faced with breaking habits that held little consolation for them, they both contemplate suicide, and it is this last desperate act that finally establishes a measure of understanding between them. The remaining stories are set in the same locale and feature characters who are similarly locked into a way of life; they are generally baffled by fate but grateful for the small tendernesses and friendships that each day offers. Small, understated epiphanies bring them comfort, and sometimes inspiration, in their struggles over bitterness and disappointment. Lordan is definitely a writer to watch; she eschews flashy effects to build characters whose simple lives take on dignity and meaning.
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