Laura Furman’s new concerto of stories, The Mother Who Stayed, ties its parts together in an illuminating and subtle fashion.
Anton Chekhov, the father of the modern short story, gave us endings that, as Virginia Woolf put it, feel “as if a tune had stopped short without the expected chords to close it.” She wasn’t complaining. Woolf placed the onus on the reader to listen more closely to the tune, “particularly those last notes which complete the harmony.”
In her new short story collection, The Mother Who Stayed, Laura Furman adds a twist to Chekov’s ending by interlinking her nine short stories in three trios, with the result being the last notes of the previous short story are often rung loudly and explicitly in the next. In essence, Furman gives the reader what Rachel, her young main character of the first story, “The Eye,” so badly wants: to climb the maple tree where “[f]rom the branches at the very stop, she’d be able to see what was waiting for everyone she knew.”
In “A Thousand Words,” for instance, we don’t wonder for too long whether the narrator’s deceased husband had an affair because in the next linked story, we learn, in fact, he did. This maneuver allows Furman to take this subsequent story into deeper and unexpected territory and to show reverberations of events over long spans of time.
In “The Hospital Room,” Rachel’s mother is dying. In the next linked story, “The Thief,” Rachel’s mother has been dead several years. Rachel, now fifteen, visits her friend, Caitlin. When a pearl necklace belonging to Caitlin’s mother goes missing, Caitlin lets Rachel be accused of the theft, rather than her abusive boyfriend. Then the story turns to a beautifully unexpected place. After Rachel’s meeting with the insurance investigator, she leaves Caitlin’s apartment, imagining if she had taken the pearls: “If this were a fairy tale, I’d grind the pearls up into a powder, go to the underworld, and feed them to my mother.”
Furman, who is editor of the highly acclaimed PEN/O. Henry Prize stories, was inspired by the concerto, a musical composition in three parts in which one solo instrument is accompanied by an orchestra. Here the orchestra playing behind all her stories are the themes of the strong bond between mother and daughter, death and the passage of time, infidelity and domestic violence, and economic class. Threaded throughout is the image of pearls that appear in association with women.
The solo that plays along with the orchestra is, for the most part, filled with subtle tension because Furman is a master at withholding. She employs a Henry Jamesian technique ofdialogue-by-omission, leaving things unstated or statements incomplete. In “The Eye,” Rachel, the young protagonist, keeps walking in on incomprehensible adult conversations.
The linked trio structure also invites dramatic irony, in which the reader knows more than the character. In “Here It Was, November,” a biographer uncovers a dark secret about the novelist and poet, Marion Foster Todd. As a young woman, a lover gave Marion a child to care for, but in the end, she gave up the child so she’d have time to write. In the next story, which occurs earlier in time, an old and dying Marion seeks out this child, and lets her, now a grown woman, entertain the possibility that Marion is her real mother. The reader, however, knows the truth and watches the manipulative and conniving Marion ingratiate herself into this young woman’s life.
In the final trio and title story, Dinah, who grew up motherless, is grieving the loss of her husband. Here, the orchestra plays nearly all the themes. Dinah turns to the diaries of a late nineteenth century woman, Mary Ann, who bore sixteen children, six of whom died, for solace and healing. (Furman actually found these diaries in a house she owned in upstate New York.) Woven into her Dinah’s world is Amber, who is being abused by her boyfriend. Though Dinah tries to intervene, the young woman is ultimately killed by her abuser. IIt is, in the end, an imaginative act that saves Dinah, as she lets Mary Ann’s life infiltrate her psyche.
As a whole, Furman’s collection rings a resounding note: that the ordinary events of a life hold extraordinary power, reverberating for years hereafter, shaping inner worlds and the next generation.