Three on a Theme for Valentine’s Day: “Love” Short Story Collections

Even though I’m really not a Valentine’s Day sort of person*, this is the seventh year in a row that I’ve put together a themed post featuring books that have “Love” or a similar word in the title in the run-up to mid-February (2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022).

I also don’t generally read short story collections if it’s not September – I seem to need that alliterative crutch to get to a dozen or so of them – but my “Birds” trio and these three were so great that I had to wonder why I don’t read them all year round.

Are these love stories? Some, to an extent. But also loss stories. Loneliness stories. Hatred stories. Abandonment stories. A few even verge on horror. In other words, realistic slivers of life. And as different as Carver’s lean, masculine tales of addiction and failure might seem from Bloom’s wry scenes of family life and Dunmore’s intimate pictures of isolation and mental illness, I found that all three resonated with each other. As for character detail, Dunmore’s “fat men” echo the overweight male protagonist in Bloom’s first story cycle.

 

Where the God of Love Hangs Out by Amy Bloom (2010)

One of these stories, “Sleepwalking,” was familiar to me because it is reprinted from her 1993 collection, Come to Me, and another two were originally published in 2000’s A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You – isn’t she great at titles?! She excels at first lines, too: some from this volume are “At two o’clock in the morning, no one is to blame,” “William has gout,” “Clare can’t walk,” “No power” and “I had always planned to kill my father.”

The book contains two quartets of linked stories and four stand-alone stories. The first set is about Clare and William, whose dynamic shifts from acquaintances to couple-friends to lovers to spouses. Bloom, a former psychotherapist, is interested in tracking how they navigate these changes over the years, and does so by switching between first- and third-person narration and adopting a different perspective for each story. She does the same with the four stories about Lionel and Julia, a Black man and his white stepmother. Over the course of maybe three decades, we see the constellations of relationships each one forms, while the family core remains. She also includes sexual encounters between characters who are middle-aged and older – when, according to stereotypes, lust should have been snuffed out.

Of the unlinked stories, the most memorable was “By-and-By,” a distressingly unemotional account of the ripple effects of a serial killer’s actions as seen by a victim’s roommate. I also loved the title story, which appears last. An older man and his daughter-in-law meet twice, by accident, in small-town eateries, the one wanting to come clean about a troubled past and the other wanting to embark on a new and surprising romance. This one reminded me of Richard Russo and early John Irving, while the collection as a whole would suit fans of Julia Glass, Tessa Hadley, Sue Miller, Lorrie Moore and Elizabeth Strout. (Secondhand – Bookbarn International)

 

What We Talk about When We Talk about Love by Raymond Carver (1981)

Such a famous title that it has spawned countless imitators, two of which I’ve even read (What We Talk about When We Talk about God by Rob Bell and What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank by Nathan Englander). It turns out I had Carver confused with John Cheever, so I was expecting gritty stories of alcoholism in the 1950s Midwest. Yes to the alcohol abuse, but Carver was from the Pacific Northwest and was writing in the 1980s. A number of his protagonists are drunk, deadbeat dads who have been kicked out and make a scene to get back at their wives. Others are more passive, stuck in suburban ennui. Grown men fear turning into their fathers (“Sacks”). Ultimatums are defused (“Everything Stuck to Him”) and custody arrangements fought over (the Solomonic fable “Popular Mechanics”).

The declarative simplicity of the prose, and the interest in male activities like gambling, hunting and fishing, can’t fail to recall Ernest Hemingway, yet I warmed to Carver much more than Hem. Two of these stories struck me as feminist for how they expose nonchalant male violence towards women; elsewhere I spotted tiny gender-transgressing details (a man who knits, for instance). In “Tell the Women We’re Going,” two men escape their families to play pool and drink, then make a fateful decision on the way home. I don’t think I’ve been as shocked by the matter-of-fact brutality of a short story since “The Lottery.” My favourite was also chilling, “So Much Water So Close to Home.” Both reveal how homosocial peer pressure leads to bad behaviour; this was toxic masculinity before we had that term.

Many of the stories are only 3–8 pages long, such that 17 fit into a slender volume. They’re about half and half first- and third-person, sometimes with speech marks and sometimes not. At 15 pages, the title story is the longest and a great one. Two couples are having pre-dinner drinks and discussing types of love – physical, spiritual and so on. The POV character mostly conveys monologues by his friend Mel, a cardiologist (of course he would be a heart doctor!), comparing the obsessive love of his first wife’s ex, who turned out to be a stalker, and the mature devotion he saw in an elderly couple at his hospital after a horrific car accident. There were a few flippant or less memorable stories in here, but I’m impressed enough to seek out more of Carver’s work, poetry or prose. (Secondhand – Books for Amnesty, York)

 

Love of Fat Men by Helen Dunmore (1997)

This was an early work by Dunmore, who was so prolific in her two-decade career that I still come across titles of hers that I’ve never heard of before. I don’t think a book by this title would get published nowadays, but I won’t hold it against her. It is literal in that Ulli, a recurring character in 10 of these 19 stories, finds comfort in sleeping with larger men. I wondered what so captured Dunmore’s imagination about Scandinavia: you can work out that Ulli is from Finland and most of the stories are set there or in nearby countries.

Every other story returns to Ulli, but the fragments of her life miss out the connective tissue: we suspect she’s pregnant as a teen, but don’t learn what she chose to do about it; we witness some dysfunctional scenes and realize she’s estranged from her family later on, but don’t find out if there was some big bust-up that prompted it. She comes across as a loner and a nomad, apt to be effaced by stronger personalities. In “The Ice Bear,” she’s on a ferry from Sweden back to Finland and can’t escape the prattle of a male missionary. In “A Question of Latitude” she’s out for a restaurant meal with friends, one of whom diagnoses her thus: “Nothing really affects you, does it? You just smile and put it out of your mind. And you cut people out of your life the same way, when you’ve finished with them.”

Whereas in the Bloom the interconnected stories are the strongest, here my preference was for the others. “The Bridge Painter” is about a man who leaves a peculiar calling card at each bridge he visits. “Annina” paints a woman with a questionable grasp on reality after the loss of a child. Best of all is probably “North Sea Crossing,” which contrasts two father-and-son pairs. If you only know Dunmore from novels, I can recommend her poetry and short stories, too. (Secondhand – Bas Books, Newbury)

 

All three:

Try all of these authors right away if you haven’t already!

 

*A daytrip into London on Thursday was our Valentine’s gift to selves. We toured the Tower of London and the Science Museum (the Wellcome medical collections for me) and had an exceptional late lunch at Dishoom (starters and drinks pictured below). Tonight we’ll be having chocolate prune pots in front of The Bookshop Band’s love-themed livestream concert.

25 responses

  1. Like you, I always wonder why I don’t read more short stories. I often enjoy those I do read, and all of these seem to offer worthwhile moments.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Perhaps I’ll aim to read one collection per month in addition to my usual September binge.

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      1. Good idea! I may join you.

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  2. It sounds like you had a great pre Valentine’s Day celebration! I struggle with Dunmore as a writer and suspect I might struggle with most of the Bloom stories from your description, but like the sound of the Carver.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Bloom probably wouldn’t be for you. The Carver was a pleasant surprise!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Ah, the lovely Dishoom! Half hoping they might open a branch locally although that might spoil the treat aspect.

    Amy Bloom’s stories are favourites for me, and Dunmore, of course. The inclusion of Raymond Caver made me smile, a pleasingly unusual Valentines Day choice.

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    1. We’d not been before but had a voucher from when my sister went in December. The best biryani and dhal I’ve ever had!

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      1. I can’t resist the chicken biryani despite telling myself I must try something else and the black dhal is fabulous.

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      2. We had jackfruit biryani (indistinguishable from chicken as far as we’re concerned) and the black dhal was to die for. I might get my sister the cookbook for Christmas and we’ll be pinching that recipe.

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  4. I need and want to read more short stories. I don’t know why I keep skipping past them! I like your idea here of reading one collection a month. It feels good to think about it.

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  5. What delightful collections, even if some of the themes seem quite dark. The Dunmore appeals most but it appears all really have something to say.

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  6. The Carver sounds really good–he and Cheever both feature in Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring (on writers and drinking) and I’ve been interested in his work ever since reading that. (Dishoom is an absolute delight!! So glad you got to go. The black dhal is superb.) I’m currently reading short stories out of season, too–the collected stories of Eudora Welty–and am getting into the rhythm of short reading!

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    1. I loved The Trip to Echo Spring — that must be where I first encountered both writers (and then promptly conflated them!).

      I’ve always meant to read Welty. I think I have a copy of Delta Wedding in a box in America.

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      1. Delta Wedding is fantastic! I also like The Ponder Heart (shorter, more grotesque characters), and I’ve just bought an old Virago copy of her novel Losing Battles which I’m excited to try.

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  7. I tend to put short stories on the backburner but your enthusiasm is making me want to dig into one soon! And your lunch looks yummy!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll see if I can keep up the short story habit next month when I don’t have a theme to work towards.

      It’s a chain of Indian restaurants in London but I think there is an Iranian influence too (the website says the cuisine is inspired by “Irani cafes” in Bombay opened by Zoroastrian immigrants). In the picture you can see our appetizers of a potato masala roll and okra fries; my drink was a rose and cardamom lassi.

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  8. I feel drawn to What We Talk About (and had no idea that was the origin, I thought it was Murakami’s running book!!) but these all sound fantastic. And sounds like a lovely Valentine’s Day!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I knew about the Murakami nod — that’ll be one to read one day.

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  9. Such a nice picture of you!
    I find most books about love are also about all those other things too. They’re better that way!
    I think the Carver interests me the most… getting the male perspective on those topics sounds good!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Carver was a pleasant surprise in that I expected it be more macho or hardboiled. And with some of the stories being flash length, they were easy to fit in around my other reading or different activities.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. P.S. Thank you! I agree the picture turned out well.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. An interesting set of sets of stories! We celebrated Valentine’s Day with my husband buying me cough sweets …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You poor thing — are you finally over that virus?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sort of, I still have a cough but getting there, and back to work (I had to turn down work!!).

        Liked by 1 person

  11. […] novel I’ve read so far by Amy Bloom (and one I felt ambivalent about, though I love her short stories and memoir), White […]

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