If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This: Stories
by Robin Black
Reviewed by Meredith Maran
San Francisco Chronicle
It's hard to be happy, starting a book of short stories. There's certain heartbreak in it. Best-case scenario, you fall in love with the first story in the collection, only to find its ending already staring you down, shoving you, ready or not, into the next. And if the first piece in the book doesn't grab you? You can't give up without sampling the others, dipping that pink tasting spoon into one and then the next.
In the case of Robin Black's debut collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, the pleasure far outweighs the pain. Each story reads like a mini-novel because the paragraphs pack a punch; worlds are contained in a single page. And the writing... oh, the writing.
Take the book's opening scene. Here we have Jack, a devoted father, who's driving his blind teenage daughter, Lila, to meet her new guide dog. (Please note: no authorial fear of risky plot points here.) As Lila is confiding her fears about how much more visibly blind her guide dog will make her, Dad's mind wanders. Is it repulsive or brutally human that in this tender scene between loving father and disabled daughter, Dad is remembering last night's hot extramarital sex?
"Miranda's cropped blond hair fading into soft, colorless down along the back of her neck. Miranda laughing as she filled her mouth with bourbon from Jack's glass and held the fluid there, smiling while it drizzled from her lips until he kissed her and swallowed it himself."
Later, Jack ponders the disintegration of his relationship with his increasingly phobic wife, Ann. "In the home of a blind child, it turned out, a marriage could easily enough dissolve in unwitnessed pantomime. Ann and he could be giving each other the finger through every meal, for all Lila knew. And at times, they had come pretty close."
Ouch. Disturbed and captivated by story No. 1, I turned to No. 2 hoping and fearing the remaining nine stories in the collection would tackle subjects seemingly better suited to the parameters of the form: a love affair that flames up quickly and is snuffed in a page or two, a picnic or a wedding, a funeral or a fire. But no. On page one of the title story, we meet up with the Big C. In "Immortalizing John Parker," a sobbing, senile Alzheimer's patient is having his portrait painted, preserving him for posterity in all his mute, flaccid, grieving glory. Ten-year-old girls in a peace-loving Quaker school ("There's God in each of us") brutally bully a classmate in "Harriet Elliot." And on they go, these miniaturized novels.
Here's another tough thing about reading a story collection. Starting a novel, you can dive deep, drift through that silky seaweed for hours and hours or, if you happen to be a hoarder, days and days. With a story collection, all you've got to look forward to is a dozen hellos and goodbyes, a dozen quickies. Hence the recent invention of the hybrid known as "linked stories": a novel masquerading as a story collection; a collection masquerading as a novel.
The pieces of If I Loved You are linked only by the power of the authorial voice, and it is a powerful voice indeed. The characters don't all turn out to know each other in some tidy Twilight Zone tie-up at the end. There's no theme that connects one piece to the next, no narrative cohesion, no point. Rather, If I Loved You is a "Fantastic Voyage" into the bloodstream of the human species: mean little girls and sad old men and grieving mistresses and blind daughters and distracted dads. The full catastrophe, as Zorba said.
On her blog, Black writes about having sold her debut collection in a "hotly contested auction" at age (gasp) 46. "The editors who liked the book all talked about appreciating what they called the 'maturity' of the stories. It was actually viewed as a positive that the author had some years behind her. That it didn't read like a book a twenty-something could write."
Maybe it's midlife maturity, maybe it's raw talent, but If I Loved You leaves you longing for more. Not because it's unsatisfying, as collections can be, but because in Black's case, the usual publicity-speak ("Heralding the arrival of a stunning new voice") happens to be true. Fans (and you will be a fan) need not worry. Black has another book in the works, and guess what? It's a novel.
Meredith Maran is the Oakland author of Class Dismissed . Her next book, My Lie , will be published this year.
This article appeared on page FE - 5 of the San Francisco Chronicle.