Alone With You
Simon & Schuster: 164 pp., $22
There is a breathtaking moment in the story "The Visitor" -- which appears in Marisa Silver's new collection, "Alone With You" -- when a character named Candy sees her mother for the last time. Candy is living with her grandmother in a house that's under steady assault by the mother, who comes by when the others are away and steals things to support her drug habit. Eventually, Candy's grandmother changes the locks, and the next time the doorknob rattles, she and Candy slip back through the house to the kitchen. Suddenly, they see the mother's wild-eyed face appear, pressed to the window. Candy urges her grandmother to let her mother in, and the grandmother says, "We don't want any visitors just now."
Longing swells each of the eight stories in "Alone With You," as Silver investigates "aloneness" and the dear and inevitable distance between people in loving relationships. These stories stand out because of their high tolerance for complexity, never opting for a single note. The situations here don't settle on the neat broad themes of loss or connection, but there are always surprises, nuances, changes of heart. Many times, the stories turn on elements of estrangement and the layered love between a mother and a daughter.
In "Night Train to Frankfurt," Helen accompanies her mother, Dorothy, on a punishing trip to receive an exotic and questionable cancer treatment at a clinic in Germany. Disturbed by Dorothy's belief in the cure yet understanding her desire to live, Helen is lit by a special pressure. The illness has brought these women closer as Helen cares for her mother's bodily needs, but there are still barbs to contend with. Dorothy says of Helen's beloved copy of Neruda's poems: "Are we searching for my epitaph?"
In "Temporary," Vivian is an adopted daughter clerking at an adoption agency. She is quiet and callow and observes the hopeful couples at her job: "Vivian saw how great the barriers were between a person and his happiness, and how little it took to make him think they were small." Her life brims with ambiguity and tentative arrangements -- a mercurial roommate, a one-night stand -- and the last page of the story rings with the strangest warmth in the book as Vivian remembers a small kindness of her father to her mother, and then her mother, newly blind at the end of her life, taking up smoking. Her mother's concern about the ineffable smoke and how she might ever know if it were gone echoes Vivian's delicate grasp on what to believe.
Many times in these stories, children function as parents, as in "Three Girls," where Connie and her sisters monitor their alcoholic mother through a faculty party and take care of themselves on a snowy school day. There is a quaint moment in the story: after midnight, a knock on the door. Stranded travelers hope to use the telephone. (I so miss these land-line issues!) When the doppelgänger family enters and spends a warm few minutes, it leads to an impromptu party and a special hurt; we don't want strangers to see our mother tipsy. The story ends with an elegiac portrait of the necessary help sisters can be for one another.
One of the most delicate mother-daughter relationships, and the strangest, comes in "Pond," where Julia is mother to the mentally challenged -- and pregnant -- Martha. When Martha's son Gary is born, the focus shifts to Julia's ex-husband Burton, who, while damaged by his mistakes, is one of the best men in the book; he understands his curse is to "see things from a distance." And it is a dangerous incident at a river that clarifies for him the disaster of choosing loneliness and how necessary is his love. You could take this story and draw a line among each of the four characters and each would bear a different understanding of the human heart.
Meanwhile, in "Leap," the world is full of harm. Not only did Sheila have a close call with a sexual predator when she was a girl; as an adult, she's had triple-bypass surgery, been betrayed by her husband and owns a dog that has apparently tried to commit suicide. Her marriage is like "the waiting room at the vet's office -- everyone trapped in an expectant, knowing tense." It's all pretty stark until Sheila turns a corner, thrust into a new uncertainty that makes her suddenly very happy and full of radiant possibility. Like so many of Silver's characters, she's surprised at how difficult it is to be happy, but not certain it is impossible.
The stories in "Alone With You" are woven with Silver's sharp observation, the kind of fresh notes that come from writing within the characters. The husband in "Leap" has a tentative quality to his demeanor, "as if he were speaking while walking quickly away." In "Night Train to Frankfurt," Helen sees "she no longer really had a boyfriend, only a set of misgivings and recriminations decorated as a handsome enough, smart enough, bearded, bespeckled man with delicate hands, shiny from too much washing." And in "Three Girls," the alcoholic mother acts "cartoonish and broad, as if she were reading a storybook to children."
Again and again, people are alone together in this book as Silver explores the proximity between intimates. In "The Visitor," the mother's lips are against the glass; she's right there, so close, parent and stranger. Throughout these stories, women visit their lives trying to find a home.
Carlson is the author of 10 books of fiction, most recently the novel "The Signal."