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But Come Ye Back: A Novel in Stories Paperback – January 4, 2005
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About the Author
Beth Lordan is the author of the novel August Heat and the short-story collection And Both Shall Row. Her short fiction has appeared in The Best of American Short Stories 2002, the Atlantic Monthly, and Gettysburg Review, as well as on NPR's Selected Shorts. The recipient of a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as an O. Henry Award for her short fiction, Lordan teaches fiction writing at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. She lives in Carbondale, Illinois, with her husband.
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This is true for But Come Ye Back, and it touched some nerves with me.
My own mother was born in Ireland, came to the U.S., worked as a nanny and met my Irish, but American born father, who was another Lyle. That said, I found some humor and sadness in reading this book. It is a wonderfully written love story, without the actual word "love" being spoken. It is heartwarming, and I am sure many people will relate to the characters.
She has a great sense of psychological depth--this is almost like a Virginia Woolf novel, if VW were an Irish-American. Not much in the way of action: no car chases, no conflagrations. But it is a sympathetic and REALISTIC portrait of marriage.
The real clumsiness, however, is between them. Lyle, it seems, has been a too-reserved and angry husband, given to odd mannerisms that suggest obsessive-compulsive disorder. Mary, meanwhile, fell into the rut of so many 1960s American housewives of not having a life of her own. When she's back on familiar ground, she begins to wonder if the sacrifices she made for Lyle were worth it. Both husband and wife find themselves drawn to other people, and if those encounters do not result in classic affairs, the consequences for the marriage are no less classic: in the Sullivans' case, extramarital attraction makes their hearts grow fonder --- for each other.
The stories that form this novel are remarkable for many reasons, but I was chiefly struck by their stylistic differences. Lordan is known for her mastery of the short story, and here she riffs on that form. "Digging," for example, is all about Mary and Lyle's family backgrounds, but is given the form of a folk tale. "Cemetery Sunday," the first story, uses a familiar trope of short fiction --- take a cultural oddity/tradition and make it a metaphor --- yet here it's remarkably fresh, as if Lordan had invented the steps herself.
However, just as they begin to dance to the same rhythm, Mary and Lyle are thrown by her falling ill. The conceit of this being "a novel in stories" allows Lordan to offer windows that open and shut onto their relationship. However, when the last "story" arrives, it is over twice the length of any of the others, and seems as if it might have been the basis for a more traditional novel she was trying to write.
This is not a criticism --- the earlier stories in BUT COME YE BACK have their own kind of beauty, including the stunning "The Man With the Lapdog," which won the 2000 O. Henry Award. However, they don't have the same naked honesty that shines through in "But Come Ye Back," the final "chapter" of the book. Here, we discover the power of Lyle's love for Mary and are shown a remarkable faith for long-term relationships, not just marriage but also relationships between other family members --- father and children, sister- and brother-in-law, the newly affianced.
In this story/novella/whatever it is, Lyle's grief is stark in its unraveling, his sons' interactions all too true in their small kindnesses and idiosyncrasies. While the first six stories had me nodding my head and stopping to think, "But Come Ye Back" had me forgetting to breathe.
--- Reviewed by Bethanne Kelly Patrick
It's years later now and neither one of them will be relating the above story themselves...or many of their other memories. It's just not their style. They do not dwell upon the past, and they have settled into a comfortable coexistence wherein Lyle grumbles and Mary soothes, humors and does everything the perfect wife is supposed to do.
Lyle is retired and, after many years of never asking for a thing, Mary is making her one request. Now that their two boys are grown, Mary would like to move back to Ireland to spend her remaining years near her sister and her native land. Lyle is not particularly fond of Ireland, but he agrees and so they move.
Life stays unchanging other than the surroundings until, one day, Lyle meets an attractive American woman with a dying husband and Mary meets a handsome and charming Irish man. Mary has no issues with the decision she makes subsequent to her meeting; whereas Lyle is unsure what to do with his feelings.
When life hands him an unexpected curve, however, Lyle is forced to find his heart, his home and his strength.