Some story collections drop with fireworks and great fanfare, while others make their entrance, it could be said, on tender feet. The latter is the case with the works of Edith Pearlman, who released her fifth story collection, Honeydew, on Tuesday. Laura Van Den Berg had some kind words for the book at the New York Times Book Review last week, and if you prefer to sample some yourself, you can find one of the stories, “Tenderfoot,” over at Medium.
The title not only speaks to the gentle approach the story takes in its telling, but also happens to be the name of the pedicure parlor run by one of the leading characters, Paige, “a widow, forty-nine, and childless.” People come to Paige for more than pedicures, however, as Pearlman writes, “a footbath administered by a discreet attendant squatting on a stool could become a kind of secular confessional.” On its own, this phrase could be the prompt that launched a thousand stories of interest. But Pearlman weaves in so many tiny gorgeous details that it’s hard to imagine anyone spinning a better story than the one she tells.
If you want to study the art of the illuminating detail, this is a story worth looking at more closely. There are the weekly poker games that Paige plays with five other women who call each other by their last names and smoke cigars. There is the moment when Bobby, who comes to Paige for a pedicure and slightly more romantic intentions really sees Paige’s eyes, which he describes as the “blue of a Veronese sky.” There is Paige anticipating how Bobby’s disastrous feet will exfoliate in flakes as opposed to scales, sheets, or layers. There is a Band-Aid–covered cheek with “a little rosy streak making its infected way” out from under the bandage to a chin. These are compassionately captured details; if we could sit for prose descriptions the way that people sit for portraits, we’d be fortunate to find ourselves in front of a writer like Pearlman. She shows kindness even when confronting cruelties, such as when she reveals the truth behind Bobby’s recently failed marriage. Her benevolence is reminiscent of George Saunders, Carson McCullers, and James Baldwin.
Van Den Berg begins her review of Honeydew by quoting the 78-year-old Pearlman: “It’s very important for a writer to be unnoticed. As quiet and unnoticed as possible.” With her first three collections, Pearlman certainly lived in this quiet, unnoticed place. It wasn’t until the release of Binocular Vision in 2011, a story collection that was championed early by Ann Patchett and went on to become a National Book Award Finalist and the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction that her quiet was disrupted. Yet in spite of all that noticing of her last collection, we have Honeydew out among us now, stories worth noticing even if only in a quiet little reading nook somewhere.
In the most recent issue of The Brooklyn Rail, Matt Bell interviews Kate Bernheimer about fairy tales in general and her recently released story collection, How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales. It’s a delightful conversation between two writers who clearly respect one another. Here’s Bernheimer speaking to the form she employs in her collection, which has only a single paragraph on each page:
I know some readers have said they find the form initially strange, but for me it feels very familiar. The form of these books is heavily influenced by the format of books we call “children’s books” where often a block of text is illuminated by an illustration on a facing page or under or over the picture. The white space on the page helps me picture what “illumination” I want to evoke with the words. Children’s books were the first books I encountered as a reader, the first stories I fell in love with, and they influenced my form. As Andre Breton says, we’re all “former children.” I think that’s a very serious way to think about reading.