Contradiction is everywhere in Marisa Silver's latest collection of short stories - just as it is in life. We crave; we hate. We need; we reject. We want everything, except when we want nothing. If, as one character suggests, "Everything is a test,'' then we probably fail most of the time, based on our ridiculous fickleness.
But sometimes, Silver makes clear with devastating simplicity, that tendency to change course works to our advantage. Foundations crumble and leave us as unsteady as the house sliding slowly down a cliff in In the New World. If we can adapt, forge new ground on which to stand, we survive.
Author of the novels The God of War and No Direction Home and the story collection Babe in Paradise, Silver understands this truth and passes it along to her characters with grace and insight as they grapple with change, revelation and the complexities of modern life. These are clear-eyed, unsentimental stories that resound with resilience. The young woman who sleeps with her roommate's boyfriend ("Just for now'') in Temporary wonders if she can care and not care about him at the same moment. (She can.)
In Pond, Julia, mother of a developmentally disabled daughter, knows "that whatever love was, it was also the opposite.'' After her daughter has a baby, Julia tells her, "You're a good mother, Martha.'' Martha isn't a good mother all the time - who could be? - but in that moment, Julia's assessment is true.
The stories in Alone With You are portraits of everyday sorrows, but Silver keeps hope alive, even when
it's on life support. Her characters often feel powerless, then discover what they can do. Helen in Night Train to Frankfurt, who "no longer really had a boyfriend, only a set of misgivings and recriminations decorated as a handsome enough, smart enough, bearded, bespectacled man . . . "' can't get past her lover's affair, but she can provide a heroic confidence to guide her dying mother.
Sheila in Leap, who has undergone bypass surgery at 37, has "grown wary. Assumptions that the earth would be there to meet the foot when she put it down, or that her body would remain upright without her expressly willing it to were no longer certain.'' But she eventually recognizes the painful truth about her marriage.
Oh, yes: Knowledge can be wrenching. Young Connie in Three Girls, embarrassed by her drunken mother, watches her older sister's reaction and understands that "when Jean left the family, she would leave Connie, too, because Connie would remind her of things she didn't want to remember.'' Marie in the title story, struggling with depression, discovers on a family vacation that what she needs to survive is something quite different from what she has.
But like the Polish immigrant builder in In the New World, all these bent-not-broken people fumble toward happiness, laying steps for a new foundation.