Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
These stories get better with repeated readings
ONE reliable test of a good book is whether it stands up to repeated readings.
Rebecca Lee's impressive first story collection doesn't just stand up well, it gets better.
Saskatchewan-born Lee, now teaching in North Carolina, won critical acclaim for her 2006 novel, The City Is a Rising Tide. Her short fiction has appeared in the august U.S. magazine The Atlantic Monthly no fewer than four times.
The title story, the strongest of the collection, takes place during a dinner party hosted by a young professional couple in New York. The lives of the hosts and their guests form a criss-crossing network of friendship, love, suspicion and infidelity.
Some neat bits of foreshadowing are fulfilled, but not quite in the way the reader or the narrator expects. Lee gives the ending a well-crafted twist that feels both unexpected and inevitable.
Bobcat touches on aspects of what it means to be a civilized human being. The unnamed narrator muses about a friend she suspects of cheating on his wife: "If one of the things people do is establish a civilization out of nature, a way out of the chaos, then Ray was failing at being a person, falling back into the glut of the physical world."
Similarly, in the final story, Fialta, the (also unnamed) narrator posits that "one of the skills of being properly alive is the ability to contain gracefully one's desires."
He is one of five apprentices chosen for a work term at Fialta, a famous architect's rural retreat. When the group finds out early on that love affairs between them are not permitted, it seems inevitable that someone will fall in love.
The inevitable happens, of course, and the result is an example of how a period of happiness that is by definition temporary can expand so that it exists out of time.
Slatland shows a young woman learning another of the skills of living: dealing with heartbreak. Margit, a biologist from Saskatchewan, learned as a child to separate herself from a troubling situation, to feel like she's rising above it, through a technique given to her by an eccentric psychologist.
Her Romanian fiancé, Rezvan, thinks this is crazy; anyone with a real problem needs more than just separation from it. But when Margit finally discerns the truth about Rezvan, it's her skill in "rising above" that moves her toward a resolution.
In all six stories in this volume the narrators look back on events from a distance of months or even years, and in most cases offer a glimpse beyond the story's time frame. The resulting breadth of perspective feels just slightly old-fashioned, in a pleasing way.
The one story that doesn't do this is also the only disappointing piece in the collection. The Banks of the Vistula concerns a first-year university student who plagiarizes a paper for a professor she wants to impress. The complications that develop from her deception are intriguing, and her attraction to language, finally expressed in a desire "to say one true sentence of my own" is compelling.
But it's not clear why she becomes fond of the professor, given her precarious position and his contempt for the ideas in her paper. And the subversion of the expected ending is unsatisfying.
Still, Lee's characters are drawn with affection and wry humour, their flaws, contradictions and delusions mingled inextricably with empathy and generosity.
Like the people in Anne Tyler's novels, they do their best to navigate this peculiar thing we call everyday life.
Joanne Epp is a Winnipeg writer.
Bobcat and Other Stories
By Rebecca Lee
Hamish Hamilton, 224 pages, $22
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 1, 2012 J8
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