Amy Bloom’s characters are glorious, endearing wrecks—vain, horny, bullheaded, and brave. They resemble everyone we’ve ever known intimately.
However you feel after finishing Amy Bloom’s new collection of stories, Where the God of Love Hangs Out, you certainly won’t be at a loss to answer the question implied in its title. The action takes place, by and large, in living rooms, dining rooms, bedrooms, and kitchens. Conversations prickling with decades of regret happen at the sink, as one speaker washes and the other dries. Reluctant lovers on long, slow collisions finally accept the inevitable in front of the television, with Greta Van Susteren supplying background music. Even when Bloom does send her characters off-property—to bars, to hospitals, to Paris—it’s only a matter of time before she turns them right around. This love god is a homebody, through and through.
If you think this sounds like a recipe for claustrophobia, you’re partly right. By halfway through Bloom’s new collection I was yearning for an open field, even an airplane hangar. But it’s also true that domestic spaces are only as humdrum as the people inhabiting them, and Bloom’s characters, I’m happy to pronounce, are glorious, endearing wrecks. They are simultaneously loyal, petty, resentful, and compassionate. They are vain, horny, bullheaded, and brave. In their messy assemblage of traits they are new to us yet resemble everyone we’ve ever known intimately. What unites them, and this collection, is the attention they finally pay to love’s power of transcendence. They know what they want. Whether they get it, and whether their enlightenment comes too late, is another matter.
On the first page of the opening story, “Your Borders, Your Rivers, Your Tiny Villages,” we meet William and Clare, two of the more successful pursuers: middle-aged, old friends, relatively content with their respective spouses and yet deeply, tacitly in love with each other. William’s trembling hand is resting, for the first time, on Clare’s breast. Talk about beginning in media res. The triumph of this very moving and unabashedly erotic story—Bloom writes beautiful, unflinching sex scenes, all the more effective for being inseparable from character—is the way in which Bloom convinces us of the rightness of their affair. If we have any reservations about their behavior, we ditch them before long; these two were made for each other.
Bloom confirms this over the course of three more stories, as we follow William’s and Clare’s halting progress toward marriage and its aftermath. Along the way we slide around in point of view, inhabiting the perspectives of minor characters including William’s wife, Isabelle, and Nelson, the eagle-eyed, chess-playing son of Clare’s maid. When William, a bear of a man, develops gout, in the story “I Love to See You Coming, I Hate to See You Go,” his interactions with Clare become dryly hilarious.
William sits back in his armchair, moving his right foot out of harm’s way. If Clare gently presses his foot or lets the cuff of her pants just brush against his ankle, it will hurt worse than either of his heart attacks. He sees Clare angling toward him and moves his leg back a little more.
“Don’t bump me,” he says.
“I wasn’t going to bump you.”
When Clare, without thinking, compares his deformed appendage to a giant turnip, “William is happy to hear her say so. His heart rises on a small, breaking wave of love just because Clare, who says precisely the wrong and tactless thing as naturally as breathing, is with him, and will be right here for almost twenty-four hours.”
With their deadpan wit, their quirks and requirements and tangled allegiances, this couple will make you a little giddy, I promise, and when the happiness they have so painstakingly achieved comes to an abrupt end, you will learn something about the nature of loss. And the nature of great writing.
The eight remaining stories in Where the God of Love Hangs Out, despite their considerable strengths, exist in William’s and Clare’s collective shadow. This is a matter partly of content and partly of arrangement. There is a second quartet of linked stories about a different couple, Lionel and Julia, stepson and stepmother, who, in a moment of poor judgment fueled by mutual grief and no small amount of liquor, fall into bed together. Over the course of many years they navigate the repercussions of this act. There’s an implied invitation here to compare Lionel and Julia to William and Clare—to see them as soulmates of the same caliber, struggling under more wretched circumstances. I didn’t buy it. Bloom herself seems unconvinced. She piles on the particular detail. Point of view shifts that came naturally in the earlier stories feel here like mildly desperate attempts to keep the ball rolling. The result is an acutely observed, vividly populated narrative that adds up to the sum of its parts and no more. Three of the Lionel and Julia stories have been published in Bloom’s two earlier collections. A fourth, “Fort Useless and Fort Ridiculous,” appears to have been written expressly to give their storyline closure. It’s difficult not to see this decision to dust off and expand upon old material as contrived—a misguided attempt to lend the new collection symmetry. Instead, it throws it out of whack.
Fortunately, the misalignment isn’t fatal—Bloom’s talents are too prodigious. Throughout this book she doggedly, thrillingly keeps at her investigation of love in its many forms. “Fort Useless,” near its conclusion, provides a new angle on the theme in the form of Robert, a gay man mourning the loss of his best friend and confronting a chilly reception by her gathered relatives. After being insincerely invited to stay for coffee, he considers making himself scarce:
He is an impediment; he is an awful, faggy roadblock to their mother’s memory, and the sooner he picks up his odds and ends and goes back to Old Fagland, the better. Robert is not a brave man; he has stood up for himself a couple of times, in a polite way, over the course of seventy years, but he isn’t the kind of person who stays where he isn’t wanted. Julia was. Julia was just that kind of person, going where she wasn’t wanted, still telling people to go fuck themselves, and Julia had loved him. He had braided her long gray hair and they had discussed whether or not she should cut it after all this time, and he had rubbed moisturizer into the dry skin between her shoulder blades and trailed his finger down her spine and toward the small folds of skin above her waist. Julia said, No playing with my love handles. Robert had leaned forward to kiss them and said, Lovely, lovely handles. Robert pulls up a chair and he pats Jewelle on the knee.
“If I may change my mind, coffee would be lovely.”
In “Between Here and Here,” a woman watches, amazed and conflicted, as her father, a bitter, verbally abusive man, accesses something like tenderness during the onset of senility. It’s a tribute to Bloom’s powers of characterization that the transformation leaves us gape-mouthed, as well—this is a man who responds to his college-aged son’s coming-out speech with a poke in the stomach and the words, “A fat fag? Not much fun in that.” The delightful, nuanced title story closes the collection in much the same way that “Your Borders” opens it: on a note of hope. This time we get a married man in the grips of a head-spinning crush while his daughter-in-law, living in the same town, struggles to keep from collapsing under the weight of family secrets. Clumsily, without quite meaning to, each props the other up in a crucial moment.
Are their troubles really over? Doubtful. But they can worry about that later. As Bloom reminds us repeatedly in Where the God of Love Hangs Out, you gotta take what you can get when you can get it. We may be a bunch of idiots, stumbling around after love, fooling ourselves into thinking it has any kind of permanence—but we sure as hell have our priorities straight.