The Complicated World of Adults

Reviewed By

A volume of new and selected stories by Edith Pearlman reveal the subtleties of her characters’ inner lives—and the surehanded mastery of their author.

I recently read Binocular Vision, a volume of new and collected stories by Edith Pearlman, on a cross-country flight. On my return, I read the stories again. Rare is the collection that rewards many divings; rarer still when all of the work, whether early or new, is confident in its artistry, when the hours spent reading escape notice in the way only complete absorption allows.

In her warm introduction, Ann Patchett reveals similar impressions, suggesting that Pearlman has remained a secret for too long. Despite having penned hundreds of stories, some of which have appeared in Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, and The Pushcart Prize anthology, Pearlman’s work has yet to achieve the wide readership it deserves.

When reading these stories, one is left with the awareness that all the hallmarks of capable writing are present, including efficient dialogue, the knowledge of what to say and what to leave unsaid, expert foregrounding, intriguing characters, and formidable pacing. But one also feels that the usual review-speak can’t fully capture what makes Pearlman’s signature her own. Binocular Vision gathers thirteen new stories as well as twenty-one selections from Vaquita (1996), Love Among the Greats and Other Stories (2002), and How To Fall: Stories (2005). Like Gina Berriault and Alice Munro, Pearlman consistently invents provocative domestic dilemmas, and misfit characters who embrace or reject the confines of their circumstances. Whether writing about Godolphin (a fictional neighborhood in Boston), Central America, Jerusalem, Maine, London, or other locales, Pearlman exposes emotional depths in the lives of émigrés, the intelligentsia, the aging, couples on the brink of unraveling, adolescents, children, and Jewish families. Her characters can occasionally seem privileged, but they are nonetheless subject to the same pleasures and cruelties as anyone. Pearlman portrays them with equanimity.

Consider the couple at the conclusion of “ToyFolk,” a story on neighborly solicitude and family secrets. Speaking of another couple, the husband, Fergus, remarks, “I thought they’d lost her”:

“They lost sight of her?”

“Bernard, a bereaved father, I thought. Well, bereaved in a way. His children were never allowed to be born.” He got up and moved the wastebasket back to the corner of the room and put the clippers on the highboy.

“He’s made other people’s children his,” Barbara said. Fergus, considering, put his elbow on the highboy. “A reasonable alternative to the terrors of parenthood, some would say,” she added.

He gave her a look of distaste.

She countered with one of boldness. “Maybe even preferable.”

“Some would say,” he hurried to supply, sparing her the necessity of repeating the phrase, she who had experienced motherhood’s joys in such reassuring milieus—just listen to that faithful clock. “Well, we know better,” he said.

And waited for her assent.

And waited.

The brief interlude reveals the nature of their relationship. Fergus’s assumptions about Barbara’s happiness (presumably unchallenged, until now) and her passive aggression hint at layers of misunderstanding. The story pivots on uncertainty—something Pearlman is very good at achieving. She introduces troubling implications with great subtlety, but she doesn’t employ mystery merely for the sake of mystery. There’s no coyness about what she holds back for the end.

Instead, she invites readers to consider the underside of human experiences, and to question what many readily accept at face value, perhaps nowhere more noticeably than in the titular “Binocular Vision,” an account of a girl who has been spying on a neighboring couple without knowing the context of their lives:

The next day in the obituary section I could find no hint of suicide, unless suddenly was the code word. But the final sentence was a shocker. “Mr. Simon, a bachelor, is survived by his mother.”

I raced to my own mother. “I thought she was his wife!”

“So did she,” my mother said, admitting me abruptly into the complicated world of adults, making me understand what I had until then only seen.

That’s another part of what makes Pearlman distinctive: the tension she builds in characters who do not immediately realize their vulnerability, and who often appear as self-possessed, intelligent individuals confronted by the limits of their own experience—“what I had until then only seen” could well serve as a theme for many of these stories.

Parents who momentarily lose their daughter, a couple who shoplifts, a pair of incestuous cousins, aging widowers, a mother with a hospitalized child, adulterers, a woman who drowns herself—Pearlman turns these characters’ panic and disappointment into opportunities for reflection. No matter what they endure—from the smallest suburban malady to death—she treats their pain with respect. No schmaltz, no judgment, no tugging at the heartstrings, just a steady gaze and a gradual widening of the focus as Pearlman lets readers in on something wonderful and searing that had been there all along.

Karen Rigby is a poet and co-founder of Cerise Press. Her reviews have appeared in Next American City, ForeWord Reviews, and other magazines. More from this author →