I remember breathlessly telling my twelve-year-old niece, Jaycie, that if Amy Bloom’s name were on the cover of a phone book I’d read it and enjoy every line. I’m a bit of a Bloom fan, and still remember buying her first novel Love Invents Us in hardcover at the B. Dalton in the Eden Prairie Mall just because I liked the title.
After reading Where the God of Love Hangs Out her newest short story collection that affirmation is truer than ever.
What I like so much about Bloom’s writing is that she populates her stories with intelligent, capable people. I like that her characters often make what could be considered the wrong decision knowing full-well that it isn’t the smartest thing to do. But they are some how compelled to try something new, to go beyond the boundaries of their bourgeois, successful lives. I like these kinds of characters because I think they have the most at stake, they risk everything and reading how that turns out is fulfilling.
This collection is unlike any I’ve read before. That’s no exaggeration. Where the God of Love Hangs Out features two sets of four-interlinked stories and a few stand alone stories. It sort of reads like two novellas with some short stories in between. This isn’t a complaint because both of those novellas are really, really good. So good in fact that it makes the stand alone stories pale in comparison (and not because they’re bad, it’s just the interlinked stories are that good).
The first set of stories features William and Clare, college professors who have been best friends for years when they randomly decide to become lovers even though their respective spouses are asleep upstairs. We follow the pair through their illicit trysts which are at turns totally hot and miserable failures. Alone William and Clare are not particularly likable but in their relationship they become wholly lovable. And when their final story comes it’s kind of heartbreaking, both in the actual story and in the fact that we don’t get to read more about them.
The second quartet of stories features Julia and Lionel. Oh boy. It opens with nineteen-year-old Lionel’s father and Julia’s husband having just died. In their grief Julia and Lionel fall into bed together. Reading the pages that lead up to this event filled me with a sense of dread it was as though I wanted to look away from the story because I knew that trainwreck was coming. Ouch. Filled with guilt, Julia sends her stepson away. The three stories that follow show the repercussions of that one night and how Julia tries to put her family back together again.
As a writer I am fascinated with how other writers convey grief and loss without a flood of tears and various synonyms for sad. When I think about this I often go back to a scene in Ethan Canin’s America America which involves a vase of flowers on a table that so perfectly sums up how a man feels about his recently deceased wife. Bloom has a scene like that between Julie and Lionel. In this small, short scene she perfectly expressed the loss both Julia and Lionel are feeling without having either character shed a tear or utter a word. It is scenes like this that make reading the whole collection worthwhile.
There are other stories in the collection and they are good. Especially, “Between Here and Here” which chronicles the relationship a daughter has with her emotionally abusive father after her mother dies. This one was a little painful to read because some of the scenes hit a little too close to home. But here writing is so spot on that it’s hard to resist. Here she writes about the main character how she landed a man who is nothing like her father.
I won him the way poor people occasionally win the lottery: Shameless perseverance and embarrassingly dumb luck, and every time I see one of those sly, toothless, beaten-down souls on TV holding a winning ticket, I think, Go, team.”
If you’ve never had the great fortune to read any Amy Bloom, Where the God of Love Hangs Out is a good place to start, especially if you like smart, emotionally-honest writing that can be both painful and funny at the same time.