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Honeydew: Stories


Honeydew: Stories

Unless you are a regular reader of literary magazines like Ploughshares or Alaska Quarterly Review, there's a good chance you have never encountered the work of Edith Pearlman. That's your loss, as it was mine until I had the good fortune to pick up HONEYDEW. It's her first collection since the publication of BINOCULAR VISION, a volume of new and selected stories that won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 2011 and was a finalist for the National Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Story Prize. The shame is that it's taken Pearlman until her eighth decade to gain this kind of recognition, because the 20 stories in this collection attain a nearly uniform standard of excellence, both in their acute powers of observation and in the clean precision of their prose.

The typical Pearlman story spans 10-15 pages (the longest clocks in at only 22). But instead of restricting her, that terseness allows her to display a talent for swift character development and economical story lines. Unlike Alice Munro, a writer with whom her work merits comparison both for its shrewd judgment of human character and for its predominant subject matter --- the emotional lives of women --- Pearlman's short stories generally are tightly focused in their time frame. Her characters are highly educated, self-aware and, for the most part, firmly settled in the upper reaches of the middle class.

"Edith Pearlman has a quality of sight that exceeds that of ordinary human beings. She brings it to bear consistently in these exquisite stories."

Representative of these qualities is "Puck," whose protagonist, Rennie, is the owner of an antiques store in Godolphin (a fictional Boston suburb that's the setting for several of these stories). In it, the appearance of a mysterious businessman rekindles a customer's memories of a long-ago love affair. It's a small gem that ends almost before it begins and invites rereading to discover how skillfully it's constructed. A companion story, "Assisted Living," traces the decline of Muffy Willis, a customer and unpaid assistant in Rennie's shop, whose privileged background doesn't shield her from the indignities of old age.

One of the most touching stories is "Castle 4," which recounts a series of events occurring in and around a hospital. Zephyr Finn, a "regional anesthesiologist," offers a form of comfort to a dying patient that's probably unique in the annals of medicine. The story also illuminates the blossoming love between the hospital's middle-aged gift shop manager and a security officer whose disabled daughter carves intricate dolls, an endeavor that might stand as a metaphor for the meticulous craftsmanship of this tale.

"Fishwater" introduces Toby, a writer of "fictohistoriographia," novels that feature events and characters that are "Toby's doing, imagined by her dedicated intellect, unprovable, also undisprovable" and serve as an "antidote to the unbearable past." In this instance, she helps her nephew discover the truth of his parentage. In "Wait and See," the protagonist has the gift of pentachromacy, allowing him to discern colors in a way not available to those with normal sight. "Truth had nothing to do with the witness of the eyes," he concludes when confronted with the decision of whether or not he wants to continue to make use of this gift.

But Pearlman's stories don't lack the leavening quality of humor. In "Blessed Harry," high school Latin teacher Myron Flaxbaum receives an invitation to deliver a lecture on "The Mystery of Life and Death" at a London college. Though it takes him some time to discover what's really behind the event, in the process he discovers a few useful truths about the subject matter he thinks he's supposed to address. "Her Cousin Jamie," the story of a disastrous affair between a middle-aged man and a much younger woman, ends on a wry and unexpected note. In "Cul-de-sac," another Godolphin story, a group of women have to learn how to deal with a garrulous immigrant neighbor.

The collection's title story caps the book in satisfying fashion. It's the tale of Emily Knapp, an anorectic young woman who's a student at a Godolphin private day school and who witnesses the sexual activity of the school's unmarried headmistress with a surprising partner. The "honeydew" of the story's title is anything but the sweet green fruit, and Pearlman deftly ties it to Emily's plight.

For all their quality, Pearlman's stories are not flawless. "The Descent of Happiness," the story of a doctor's house call, and "Flowers," which revolves around a series of flower deliveries, are little more than anecdotes. There's a tendency toward sameness in some of her character descriptions. "Broad brows" seem to predominate, and she's fond of colors like topaz, garnet, pewter and slate in a way that sometimes calls attention to their use.

But like the power bestowed on the protagonist of "Wait and See," Edith Pearlman has a quality of sight that exceeds that of ordinary human beings. She brings it to bear consistently in these exquisite stories. "Happiness lengthens time," she writes. "Every day seemed as long as a novel. Every night a double feature." That's the kind of enduring pleasure awaiting your discovery in Pearlman's work.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on January 16, 2015

Honeydew: Stories
by Edith Pearlman

  • Publication Date: September 22, 2015
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316297232
  • ISBN-13: 9780316297233