Amanda Eyre Ward's first collection of short stories resembles her three previous novels in both tone and focus. The pieces contained in Love Stories in This Town feature female protagonists and engaging supporting characters set in varied and vividly portrayed locations. Ward's stories offer entertaining, light reading punctuated by spurts of messy reality. The mix of heartache and humor, blended with sometimes outlandish circumstances will likely appeal to women, and most especially to those who are mothers.
The collection is presented in two parts. The first and last stories in Part One address responses to the September 11th attacks on the United States. In between these two slightly melancholy, yet quirky pieces are four other stories. One briefly introduces us to a romantically confused young woman in Butte, Montana who works at the local public library. Another draws out the heartbreak of miscarriage by following a couple as they house hunt in Houston, Texas. The final two stories of Part One concern a woman who works for a dot-com startup as she deals with her inability to get pregnant, and a husband and wife as they encounter the enormous change that a child brings to their previously cozy relationship. Each piece draws the reader into dissimilar settings and situations, yet the stories are alike in their subtle wit and their showcasing of life's incongruity and its simple pleasures.
Six chronological stories about a character named Lola comprise the second half of the collection. We follow Lola through an unexpectedly failed romantic relationship to an unplanned but happy marriage and on to a stint of married life very far from home. These events are followed by the question of children and finally the challenges of motherhood. Ward often illuminates Lola's character via her imperfect family ties with her long separated parents and status-conscious mother-in-law. We also get to know Lola through her emotional responses to moving from Montana to Colorado to Saudi Arabia and back to Austin, Texas. This second half of the book can be read almost as a novella and, thankfully, Lola is an interesting enough character to make her repeat visits pleasurable.
Several of the collection's stories explore the feminine attempt to juggle maternal, professional and marital roles. The book's leading ladies display successes as well as failures in balancing the disparate responsibilities and desires created by these roles. As the title suggests, Ward also links her characters' feelings and decisions (whether romantic or otherwise) to their physical setting, revealing the connection between physical and mental geography. Ward's emphasis on the tangible characteristics of place also points to the influence a state or a town can have on the intangible parts of our lives.
My complaints against this collection are few. The stories are without question the product of a talented and precise writer. Ward's concentration on common topics for female characters could be viewed as timeless or time-worn, depending on the reader. Though I might have enjoyed a bit more variety to round out the common feminine themes, I am sure that many will readily identify with Ward's fictional women and their universal questions of love, identity and motherhood. As a librarian, I admit to showing personal bias when I say that I was mildly disappointed with the story, "Butte as in Beautiful" in which the main character works at a public library. I truly hoped the presence of "biddies" or the concept that "all the librarians... hate men" would not be part of the plot, but, alas, the modern librarian is still destined to be associated with old stereotypes. This isn't the first time Ward featured libraries or library staff in her fiction, however; one of the primary characters in her novel Sleep Toward Heaven is a librarian whose portrayal I appreciated as admirably realistic.
For me, the primary strength of this book is Ward's quick and tempting pacing that compelled me to stay between the covers just a little longer. I never felt like a story lasted too long or lost its tight structure; Ward has a real talent for finding just the right length and touch for her work. Another notable characteristic of her writing is her ability to weave the absurd realism of our daily lives with weightier topics -- love, loyalty, fear, parenthood, for example. Negative and positive are nearly balanced in these stories and though we cannot expect the same in real life, this evenness makes for hopeful reading. Ward's fiction does not leave us with bleakness, though her stories hint that there is much of it in the non-fiction world.
This review is from the April 22, 2009 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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