The twelve stories in Louise Marburg’s third collection, You Have Reached Your Destination, are about arrivals, but not the ones planned or expected. Instead, each story weaves female characters who reject what is given knowing a deeper expression of feminine identity lies under the surface. Unwilling to fit into tropes of passivity or vanity, the women in Marburg’s stories cannot traverse the paths the world that is given to them. They go their own way.
Many stories are about family, the predominant realm of women in our culture, begging the question, “What makes a family?” Opening the collection is “Alouette” in which Penelope, a sky-is-falling heroine who thinks the reason she can’t get pregnant is that “she [has] HIV, or chlamydia, or hepatitis C, or a combination of all three.” That fear raises the subtle cultural messaging that sex for women always holds the potential for harm, the potential to contract a disease that takes away her fertility forever. Unable to stand the uncertainty, Penelope visits a psychic (comically named Clair Voyant) who tells her she is magical and will have a girl. High on the prediction she lies to a stranger on the subway, attributing her staring to the fact that she is twelve-weeks pregnant with a baby girl. Reality returns when she undergoes her first egg extraction (her doctor refers to it as “harvesting”). Penelope’s magical thinking, that of so many women who read “The Secret” or go to fortune tellers, is a lovely place to visit, but indulging it for too long is untenable. She needs medical intervention.
The female protagonist who has been telling everyone her parents died in an imaginary RV crash in “Vivian Delmar” vibrates with Dorothy Parker energy. Eleanor, in her early thirties moved to New York City after college, deeply embarrassed by her mother, Vivian, and her father, Delmar’s choice to sell all their belongings and travel across the country in an RV. Like all great New York City stories the best conversations happen between strangers. And so it goes with Eleanor who confesses to an older man who tells her he bought a painting at the gallery she works at that she is ashamed of her parents for their hobo lifestyle. Before disappearing out the door and into a crowd, he offers some wisdom: “Life is long. If I showed you a film of your future, you’d be surprised by the choices you see yourself making.” A few moments later her boss appears and informs Eleanor the painting in question has never been sold. Some things are easier to hear coming from people we don’t know. Eleanor’s parents arrive on her door, she cries telling them that she’d told all her friends they’d died so she wouldn’t have to explain their lifestyle. But her shame seems silly to them. The RV is headed for the trash heap and they need a place to stay. She considers her options, having lived alone in the city so long without seeing them, developing into the urbane sophisticate she aspired to. Poised to make a choice that would surely alter the course of her future, the story ends, letting the reader choose Eleanor’s path: either of forgiveness of her parents’ abandonment or perpetuating the cycle of abandonment by turning her back on them.
Sibling conflict features in a few stories as well, a subject that is rarely explored in contemporary short stories. In “Love Is Not Enough”, arguably the most heartbreaking story, the unnamed twelve year-old protagonist goes to Manhattan to visit her adult sister, Jeannie, and her new, alcoholic boyfriend. Growing up, Jeannie crosses the girl’s personal boundaries again and again, attributable in part to being raised by their alcoholic mother. The protagonist tells of being Jeannie’s audience to her sexual encounters and subsequent abortion at age seventeen, of being burdened by the responsibility of this knowledge as a child she could not carry that she “vow[ed] never have one myself.” Would she not, as a first-grader, have heard tales like “The Velveteen Rabbit” and not about a trusted adult having an intimate medical procedure? We don’t get a flash-forward to see how this weekend trip gone awry shapes this young protagonist. We do see she is no longer the child waiting for story time; she can make up decisions for herself, concluding that she and Jeannie wouldn’t “be allies anymore” against their drunk mother. She’d arrived at a point of no return; the battle lines had been drawn.
The tension between siblings is sweeter in the title story, “You Have Reached Your Destination,” in which Amelia travels from New York to Baltimore to visit her brother Glenn who had recently suffered a heart attack from a nearly lifelong pack-a-day habit. Amelia goes to a bar with Glenn’s adult daughter, Debbie, and the gulf between how each viewed their shared upbringing, which has been relayed by Glenn as loving, is evident, “Your father is in denial about your grandmother. If he lacks self-esteem, it’s because of her. She treated him terribly when we were growing up.” Later, Amelia is driven, literally in an Uber as well as impelled, to visit the house where they grew up, to challenge her memory of their mother beating Glenn. Inside it, she sees the house as it was, dark and foreboding, harboring the ghost of her mother. She is not sure why she came and doesn’t want to be there. But, traveling back to Glenn’s house and seeing an ambulance in the driveway, she finds herself unable to protect her brother from harm just as she had been when they were children. Amelia’s relinquishing, of hope for a better future for Glenn or her ability to change the past, is neither pitying nor punishing. She is an outsider, not only to the place where she grew up, but also to the family to which she once belonged. Some places, especially the places that hold strong memories, no matter how long we stayed there nor how many years have passed since we’ve visited, can make outsiders of us.
Destination and destiny share a common Latin root: destinare, meaning to make firm or establish. Marburg brilliantly renders these twelve women as neither bitter nor avoidant in spite of their shortcomings and under the weight of terrible forces outside of their control. Whatever their destiny, the path that has been laid out in front of them is not immobile. In these short stories they flourish and fail, leave behind jobs and husbands and sick mothers and brothers, not knowing what lies ahead. Only knowing that they are writers of their own tales, mapmakers in a world they create.
Publisher: Eastover Press
Publication Date: November 10, 2022
Reviewed by Jeannine Burgdorf