"How to Fall" by Edith Pearlman

Through sharp, honest storytelling, a collection of tales about suburban women becomes irresistibly fascinating.

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published February 23, 2005 8:00AM (EST)

Edith Pearlman writes with the confidence of a lifetime's experience. If the dozens of stories she's published in magazines (and her two previous collections) haven't made her a famous writer, she's well aware that's not her fault. In another writer, I might find Pearlman's subject matter too cloying or too claustrophobic; she mostly writes about the upper-middle intelligentsia of suburban New England, and similar people elsewhere in the world. As someone who grew up in that stratum of society myself (although not in New England), I don't always want to read about it. But Pearlman's perceptions are so sharp and so fair-minded that I can't resist her; she neither wants to attack the lives her characters lead nor defend them, only to capture them as honestly as she can.

Despite the comfortable surroundings of her characters -- most of whom inhabit Godolphin, a fictional Boston suburb that may resemble Brookline, Mass., where the author lives -- Pearlman is not an exponent of that infamous genre, short stories where nothing happens. All these stories, in fact, have dramatic plot events; it's just that sometimes we can see them and sometimes we can't -- and sometimes, Pearlman suggests, they aren't as important as we think. In the title story (one of Pearlman's best), a silent comedian on 1950s television discovers who the "Lady in Green" is who's been writing him love letters. In "Madame Guralnik," a Belgian-Jewish refugee now living in Jerusalem must go to extraordinary (and illegal) lengths to sustain her role as magnanimous family matriarch.

In "Signs of Life," the first of the Godolphin stories in this collection, one member of a stodgy '60s lesbian couple actually dies and comes back to life, but the story is mostly about how Clara and Valerie finally overcome this momentous event and grow old together in obscurity. In Pearlman's universe, as in our own, we can never really understand what happens between lovers, between married people, between parents and children. In "Mates," another Godolphin story, an unnamed narrator watches as a couple moves to town, raises kids, builds a cordial network of relationships, and then disappears. In "Rules," on the other hand, the social worker narrator thinks she understands the strange, severe mother-and-daughter pair who seem to have walked out of the Puritan past. She is wrong, of course.

Even in stories where not much happens on the surface, patterns reveal themselves and the acuity of Pearlman's observations is exquisite. "Trifle" mostly takes place in a Godolphin restaurant where Pinky, a teenage runaway from Providence, R.I. (also Pearlman's hometown), has landed. Food is prepared, patrons are served, a baby is nursed in the kitchen. The talk is friendly, professional chatter, and not, Pinky gratefully observes, about "animal rights, same sex marriage, the National Endowment for the Arts, or the work of Djuna Barnes." (Her parents are a p.c. lesbian couple, but they're not Clara and Valerie.)

Pearlman's realm is mostly female, but far from exclusively domestic. Generally speaking, her women are wrestling with the rapidly changing world of Godolphin and beyond: They venture out into the world to do good works (although sometimes, as in the hilarious "The Large Lady," they are obese, alcoholic, charged up with guilt and acrimony), confront the unpredictable deaths and unpredictable lives of men, form intense bonds with each other that they cannot reliably construct with husbands or boyfriends. Some are heroines and some cowards, some are vain without justification and others are modest yet beautiful.

That stuff isn't important to Pearlman, it seems. In these meticulously crafted stories she finds in each of her women (and the occasional man) a hardened ingot of prodigious drama, an ocean of operatic ambition and suffering, a world entire unto itself.

Our next pick: A little novel brims with the wonders and sorrows of growing up

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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