Sandra Novack has focused all the stories in her first published collection on family members, couples, friends and acquaintances who are figuring out their relationships and reconsidering the emotional assumptions and in turn the human connections they have come to rely on.
Novack’s keen eye for nuances of family behavior and for the internal contradictions most people live with carries many of these numerous, fast-reading tales. She has a gift for drawing character studies as compelling as they are frustrating. And several entries do have the kind of modest plot that can turn a character study into a story.
Most notable is “White Trees in Summer,” about misunderstandings among residents of a changing neighborhood after an elderly woman dies. Novack deftly shows the divergent perspectives and responses of the neighbors, the woman’s elderly husband, the local thug and other teenagers.
Often without a plot beyond recounting a character’s back story, these stories can feel airless and even redundant, however. Barging in on the life of a newly married man coping with a bipolar brother in “Memphis,” for instance, we get both too much information in the form of sidelight details and not enough distance to complete a portrait of a character we want to empathize with.
The bipolar brother is more of a marital impediment than a complex being. And the married brother, our narrator and hero, is like a clock, marking schizophrenic outbursts and marveling at his wife’s responses but not somehow acting or causing things to happen. We hear about the household dog being lured with pepperoni and then vomiting it back up, among many other minor details. But the brothers’ happier past is dispensed in four sentences, starting with “I would like to tell (my wife), if I could, that she should have seen Georgie before ...” Why can’t he? Doesn’t the reader deserve to see that?
For readers with a craving for family intrigue, there is every possible flavor in “Everyone but You,” from college professors in a banal divorce to a child puzzling through and then looking back on her older sister’s disappearance into drugs, possibly by way of incest.