General 10-22-2007

Signaling for Rescue

Marianne Herrmann's first book is assured and rewarding; it's published by New Rivers Press and available at bookstores now.


Signaling for Rescue: Stories by Marianne Herrmann, New Rivers Press, 194 pp. $14.95

Marianne Herrmann’s first book is as assured as if it were her tenth. Her stories here often read like novellas, not because of length (they are longish, but none over 30 pages) but because they have the psychological ambition of novels. Their reach does not exceed their grasp. The stories refuse easy epiphanies; neither do they hand you a fashionable plate of anomie.

They are stories, though, and not novellas, because despite the richness of the characters and the subtlety with which the human context is drawn the heart of their appeal is in the sensual moment.

I was wary when I saw that some of these sensual stories were set in Italy; I have trouble with the privileged-Americans-find-truth-in-the-perfect-Tuscan-farmhouse trope. Some of the stories get close to that edge, but they don’t fall over. And not all of the stories happen in that setting. Even the stories set in Evanston are richly sensory, full of the concrete experiences that it seems only unhappy people who daily fight their way up to the surface of happiness can portray.

Maybe that’s a description of everyone who reads fiction. Maybe it’s a description of everyone in the world. I don’t know. I do know, though, that this is a fine collection, hard-won, and I hope it presages more.

The first three stories—“Leonardo’s Baby,” “Stones,” and “Everything and Nothing” –are marvelous.

“Leonardo’s Baby” follows a set of people—a woman, Ellen; her husband Charlie; her sister Dorie; the assorted family and friends around them—through the few weeks surrounding the pregnant sister’s entry into the couple’s life and the birth of her child. Ellen has lost three babies late in pregnancy because of an intractable clotting problem. One would expect easy drama from this situation. Instead, Ellen learns to draw.

The plot, its meaning? There’s a story about someone asking Robert Schumann to explain the meaning of a piano composition he’d just played. For answer, he sat down and played it again. And this story is that subtle, that dependent on specific detail, for its effect.

“Stones” is more easily tracked, a just-short-of-coming-of-age tale involving a group of siblings and what they need from each other. Harrowing in parts, it’s finally a beautiful evocation of how much every mistake in judgment costs, but how human beings find the means to pay the costs.

“Everything and Nothing” is a fine examination of how much each person in a family matters, and doesn’t matter, and how change in one member pulls the constellations awry. It resembles passages in Jonathan Lethem, the master of this mode.

The Italian stories occupy the latter half of the book, and are not as ambitious. They are, however, lovely if you can get over your envy (always a problem for this reader when exotic settings appear. “Send me to Tuscany!,” I cry, “I’ll write a book too!”).

But it’s hard to resist the naked frescoed couple in the series of images described as “forgettable” whose description is, actually, quite unforgettable: George, a son taking his mother around Italy after the suicide of his sister, sees these images through a scrim of edged but everyday memory, and still they are indelible.

The only quibble with this book is its cover: it really deserved better than an unemotive, unfocussed collage of oranges, pale blues, and browns. Maybe the next book will get the face it deserves.