An unfinished sentence tells you a marriage is over. An unanswered question reveals the emotional void at the heart of a family. Jessica Francis Kane’s short story collection This Close is rich with such moments. A throwaway remark is just enough to reveal the gulf between two people.
A couple of careless words or a moment of silence at exactly the wrong time reveals the respect that will never be given or the love that will never happen. What would sound like a random snippet of conversation to an accidental eavesdropper is actually a life falling apart.
It would be useless to quote any of my favorite passages, because their power is the cumulative result of Kane’s deft development of narrative and character in the previous pages.
The explosive power of seemingly ordinary moments is paralleled by the gravity of some her characters’ more commonplace dilemmas: on the surface they seem pedestrian, but that doesn’t make them any less serious to those facing them. The boring routines of middle age or simple loneliness will never make headlines, but Kane knows they can drain the life out of a person. And she makes her readers know it too.
In the sadly ironic “Lucky Boy,” the narrator achieves the New York life of his small-town dreams, but at the cost of genuine personal independence. In “American Lawn,” two bored suburbanites, a new stay-at-home and a middle-aged nurse facing an empty nest, become obsessed with winning the approval of a Croatian refugee who gardens on their street—a situation that would be comical if it weren’t so pathetic. “The Stand-In” and “The Old Beginning” depict the emotional toll of maintaining a marriage, and the pain and anger that accompanies the shift from one kind of love to another.
In other stories Kane’s characters face genuine tragedy, and their responses range from youthful ineptitude to insanity. In “Double Take” a group of well-to-do twentysomethings gather for the funeral of Mike, a friend from their days at Yale. Their efforts to commiserate with Mike’s working-class mother only intensify her misery, and culminate in an awkward dinner filled with painful silences. The story “Next in Line” takes us into the mind of a grieving mother who obsessively wanders the aisles of the CVS where she thinks the Angel of Death gave her infant daughter the meningitis that killed her.
Kane’s use of recurring characters adds to This Close’s richness and depth. One of the unsympathetic suburbanites of “American Lawn” is a somewhat more likeable character in “The Essentials of Acceleration,” a woman who’s genuinely kind to the elderly, and tries, albeit somewhat clumsily, to be good to her neighbors. Before we learn of Mike’s death in “Double Take,” we see the world through his eyes when he’s five years old in “First Sale,” and glimpse him as an adolescent in “Lesson,” making the three stories a reminder of the unforgiving finitude of our lives.
At their best Kane’s characters take advantage of what time they have to make some kind of connection with others. It’s a lesson the elderly Mr. Levering belatedly tries to teach his middle-aged daughter Holly, who’s so bitter about her mother dying when she was a teenager she’s almost lost the capacity for love or friendship:
“Holly,” he said. “Mrs. Jones asked me to come see her night-blooming cereus.”
He sighed. “One street over? White house on the corner?”
“It’s a remarkable flower, huge and fragrant, and it only blooms for one night. She didn’t want to be the only one to see it, you see.
“Holly…if she had asked you, would you have gone?”
“Mrs. Jones? I don’t know her. To come see her flower?”
“But if she’d asked, would you have understood what she was asking?”
In the other stories Kane’s characters manage to rise to acts of kindness, or even of love, no matter how trying the circumstances. In “Evidence of Old Repairs,” a young woman and her alcoholic mother intermittently attempt to find some bond, even though they know the effort is futile. In “The Stand-In,” a teenage girl accompany her father on a trip to Israel makes a surprising proposal with the best of intentions. And in the aforementioned “Next in Line,” the grief-stricken, delusional mother allows herself to be helped for her husband’s sake.
In spite of certain dark moments and some unhappy endings This Close is ultimately a book about the myriad ways we can choose to be there for each other in the darkest times.