This debut story collection follows all the rules, hits all the right notes, and touches on issues of interest to all young women. The issues are the bonds between mother and daughter, older and younger sister, college roommate and best friend, and the man who is a date, lover, suitor, and fiancé. The stories seem to be drawn from the author’s life, and the chronological series suggests a coming-of-age novel or a memoir. Kate Bishop is the heroine. Kate stands for Cara, and the reader naturally confounds the two.
To quote the back cover, “Cara Blue Adams’s fiction appears in Granta, the Kenyon Review, American Short Fiction, Epoch, and Narrative. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at Seton Hall University. Adams lives in Brooklyn, New York.” According to her website and acknowledgments, she has won or attended every writer’s conference, residency, workshop, and fellowship in the United States. Where did she find the time? If the title story is autobiography, and she was a college student in 2000, she is now about forty years old.
The story settings are New England, where Kate grows up and returns to visit her single mother; Tucson, where she does graduate work in astronomy; Virginia, where she stays at an artist colony; Baton Rouge, where she teaches at Louisiana State University; and Santa Fe, where she is about to get married. These places are lightly sketched. They are full of beautifully drawn characters, especially the bitter and depressed mother, the sullen younger sister Agnes, the bright and glamorous best friend Esme, and the “old painter” who is going blind.
Adams has impressive credentials in the literary world, an obvious talent on the printed page, and a fear of blandness. To spice things up, she throws in a Lydia Davis-style snippet, quotations from other authors, and a former lover who is “you.” She leads with a fable about Loss, who asks the author as tailor to make him a wool suit, a prayer robe, and a cloak. Loss might relate to the title, which might be a retort to Marilynne Robinson, whom she quotes: “So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again.”
What is lost in these stories? Money, youth, a sense of innocence, a chance at love, a career in science, and for the old painter in “Vision”, his eyesight. The heroine herself seems lost. Kate drifts through life with little sense of purpose or belonging. She confesses again and again that she is unsure, displaced, and not in love. She lets Michael, Javier, her faculty advisor, and every man who is kind to her slip away.
Kate can be shrewd in money matters, funny about her pretentious friends, and good at seeing landscapes. The New Year’s Eve party in Cambridge, full of Harvard Law students, is a brilliant piece of social satire. In “Seeing Clear,” she is savage about her drug-addict father: “My father’s suicide attempts began when I was ten. He worked at killing himself more earnestly than he had at any job. First, it wasn’t overt, just lots and lots of cocaine.”
Kate regrets the losses, but seldom repairs them. Two stories show her trying to connect with her mother, an ex-bohemian who stubbornly clings to her own perceived losses. “Charity” is a Christmas visit to snowy Vermont, where the mother is at odds with her frail mother and three sisters—a grim drama of resentment, self-pity, and family politics. “The Sea Latch” is a cheap motel in York, Maine, where the mother, Kate, and pregnant teenage Agnes go for a summer holiday, doomed from the start. The comedy here is deadpan, not for laughs.
Esme, the best friend who zooms in and out of the stories like a comet, is the perfect foil to Kate. Esme has looks, brains, money, a fierce drive to compete, and a boundless capacity to contradict herself. Her wardrobe is fabulous. She brings the wedding dress for Kate at the end. Esme is the fine-boned blonde with the Chanel duffel bag, the princess who makes you scream, the girl you can’t get enough of. Kate is the quiet brown-haired girl you snub at the party.
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
Publication Date: Dec. 15th, 2021
Reviewed by Robert Boucheron