April 2009

Erin McKnight

fiction

Love Stories in This Town by Amanda Eyre Ward

Cal says it with the kind of facile honesty one might expect a bartender to impart late at night, when the day -- and any air of romance -- seems to dissipate before rows of bleary eyes. There are no love stories in this town. Yet, in Amanda Eyre Ward’s short story collection, there are stories about love that merit retelling: stories worthy of the rapt attention of any reader sidling up to a patron who might appear dejected, but remains good company.

Within the emotional space of these twelve stories of modern romance, Ward searches for traces of what will remain once love has vacated. Indeed, place is a prominent theme in this collection, as is the suggestion that home may affect more than the rote scenes unfolding within its fixed parameters. Spanning several states, Ward’s stories attest to the role of sensory location, of a shifting “home place.” Fittingly, it is the women of the collection who are charged with furnishing this shelter: the uterus -- as growing, as used, as empty -- serving as an amply rendered symbol of this ambitious pursuit. From heavily pregnant Lizzy’s visit to Messalonskee Lake and her subsequent return, weighted by motherhood, to Mimi, the San Franciscan whose errant period appears “red as roses” just as she prepares to take a pregnancy test, the space within a woman is Ward’s most expertly chartered territory.

Equally perceptive -- and sure to evoke a high level of reader responsiveness -- is the author’s exploration of the spaces amid her world of women: the divide between expectation and result, between romantic fantasy and sad, yet effortlessly rendered, reality. Ward is at her best when a character drops an engagement ring inside a pocket, notices how the small hairs on her husband’s forearm look like gold, or scrutinizes the symbols of a miscarriage’s medical analysis that refuse to “bloom into a narrative.” The author’s ability to span the chasm between character and reader, to carve out a tract in which intention and action meet within crisp prose boundaries, elevates this collection’s homely intimacy.

As such, finding comfort in a changing world is the prevalent desire of Love Stories’ women. Unafraid to probe a tender post-9/11 nerve, yet steering clear of exploitation for plot’s sake, Ward constructs a house built on uncertainty and staid despair. Within its rooms reside symbols of such unease: the displayed rib of a 9/11 victim on a mantel, the Cipro bought from a man in an alley in order to survive an anthrax attack, and the wife who lives in terror within BP’s Saudi Arabian compound. Ward’s house, however, is also furnished with artifacts of endurance; although the construct may have suffered a bulldozing, the author never quells the desire of either character or reader to rebuild.

At its best, Love Stories is unabashedly funny. In particular, the concern in “Butte as in Beautiful” over a masturbator loose in the public library is well supported by a humor in style and playfulness in structure. The first part of the collection is fresh and inventive, its six stories tempering heart-rending situations that belie their casual recounting. The second part is introduced with Ward’s noted “Miss Montana’s Wedding Day,” but unfortunately these “Lola Stories” fail to achieve the heights of the first six. Rewarding as tracing a character’s path through life may suggest, there is much to be said for allowing a reader-fabrication and personal engineering of Lola’s future.

Yet, a slight imbalance in any house’s foundation can withstand the weight of the larger edifice’s expectation and promise. Ward never stoops to a punch-line effect with There are no love stories in this town; her positioning instead suggesting that the remnants of a relationship can always be crafted into something new and worthwhile. If love existed once, it can again. A row of barstools may be occupied nightly, but Love Stories in This Town solidly establishes that the somber people filling its seats won’t always be the same.

Love Stories in This Town by Amanda Eyre Ward
Ballantine Books
ISBN: 0812980115
224 Pages