When I first saw Robin Black’s collection of short stories–If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This–I was browsing in a Borders bookstore, a store that is set to close any day now. Her title was resting on a shelf under Staff Recommendations, and I immediately felt compelled by the words, the descriptions of each story on the back. I had to have it.
In the not too distant future, we may see the end of brick-and-mortar bookstores, the kind that displays a handwritten sign from an employee/book-lover who tells us “You must read this book!” As that future approaches, let’s recognize how important book clubs are—a place to share and reflect on great literature, to celebrate it and be grateful for how it changes our lens when we look upon the world.
I opened If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This on a Florida beach, my feet in the sand, the waves coming close as two children played and birds cawed. I was immediately taken in by the “The Guide,” told from a father’s perspective about his blind daughter. All parents wonder if they’re skating around a tragedy that could befall their families and break their hearts, and here was a perfect example: young Lila is blinded by the explosion of a paint can on a perfectly sunny day. There is no one to blame, except a child, and you can’t really blame a child when a disaster strikes, because children seem to live, thrive on the edge of disaster. What I loved about this story was the slow unraveling of truth that Jack must come to terms with as he watches his daughter meet her guide. While he has tried to protect Lila from further tragedy, further pain, by pretending his marriage is solid and loving, he discovers that Lila knows everything. A blind woman, like any other, can keep up appearances, especially if it’s something she’s been taught to do.
This story, and every one that comes after, is about how much goes on underneath the surface of every scene, every role we play, every conversation we enter into. We don’t have to see someone’s face to know how they feel or how we feel in response to it. Lila’s new guide dog is a perfect contrast to this complexity. A dog’s relationship with his master is seamless, direct, simple. There are no unspoken words hanging in the air, no emotional baggage. All he knows is joy, sadness, fear, hunger, sleep.
Black’s stories do exactly what short stories are supposed to do—leave you speechless. At the end of “The Guide,” Jack silently prays for his daughter. What else can it be called? “Just hang on, Lila…. Just don’t let go.” I think—though I didn’t know it at the time—that the reason these last words brought tears to my eyes was because at the exact moment he acknowledges and prays for her strength, he is letting her go.
So many of the stories in Black’s collection are about letting go of loved ones, whether that letting go is forced through death or tragedy, or whether it is willful forsaking, the way that parents and children inevitably separate themselves from the ties of the past. In “Tableau Vivant,” Jean watches her daughter enter into and end a relationship with a man not her husband, and both wordlessly acknowledge the way children grow up and never return to the time of simpler needs. In “A Country Where You Once Lived,” Jeremy realizes that his anger is as fierce as his love for the daughter who ran away and never fully came back to him:
“At home, he would watch her. He would study his daughter the way he studied the animals in his lab, as though doing so might provide some kind of solution. She had returned rail thin, all eyes and bone. Her honey hair was jet black. Her lips were perpetually chapped, as though she’d been drained of some essential human moisture. She looked like a wraith, otherwordly, but she did normal things. That was what kept him mesmerized. The way she sat at the kitchen table eating yogurt. The fact that she spoke on the phone. That she listened to music. That she walked through the doorways of their elegant rented town house without falling to her knees at every threshold to reflect on what she had done.”
Jeremy’s discovery of new and painful secrets his daughter keeps leads to one of Black’s permeating questions: how can we so often feel closest to other people—foreign people, people we’ve known only briefly—and not our own flesh-and-blood, our own family? How do we grow so far away from the people we’ve built our lives around?
The title story of this collection, for me, examines the role of a writer. So much in the story “If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This” is left unsaid in real time, but there’s a world going on in the interior of the narrator’s head and house that we are lucky enough to be privy to.
This story hit me most on a personal, anecdotal level. A few years ago, two years after we moved into our house, my husband and I received a note from an anonymous neighbor. It had been a difficult summer. I was working three part-time jobs, interviewing for a full-time job, and dealing with the conflicting emotions of putting my 16-month-old in daycare for the first time. The house was a mess. The lawn needed to be mowed. And I had come down with a wicked virus (thyroiditis) that made every physical task feel impossible. The only thing I could manage to do was sleep. When Mike pulled the index card from of the mailbox before he left for work, we thought it was a joke. In perfect female penmanship, it read: “You may have noticed you moved into a house proud neighborhood. It would be appreciated if you would take better care of your yard.”
We shook our heads, read it again, asked neighbors if they knew who sent it. We never found out (although I have my suspicions), but the thought that lingered with me was the lack of imagination on the part of the author. If she knew what we were going through, I thought, she would never have written such patronizing words. She would have understood.
And yet, don’t I, too, so often make judgments about other people, lack imagination about their particular circumstances, act out of my own selfish desires within a community?
We so rarely know what is going on behind closed doors. The neighbor who builds his wall of a fence in “If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This” doesn’t know that the woman who lives next to him has cancer, or that her 18-year-old son has been put in an institution and remains unaware of her impending death. He also doesn’t know that by cutting into their driveway and forcing them to park on the street, he has created a huge imposition, an indignity, really, that will encourage everyone to watch her being carried through the yard into her front door. By not extending a level of kindness, an interest in the people he lives next to, this neighbor makes the end of a woman’s life much more difficult than it has to be.
This story leads nicely into the next, “Immortalizing John Parker,” where the Clara realizes the man she is painting is not just boring, as she had first assumed, but losing his mental faculties. Both stories remind us that there is often so much more to a situation than we might at first see. It is human nature to code, categorize, label, judge. It is the role of art to show us depth, to lead us to a more complicated, more fulfilling understanding of our lives.
*Now, for the most important part: the Maladjusted Bookclubbers’ response! Please share in the discussion by commenting below. (Don’t forget to subscribe to the comments feed!)
Other questions for consideration:
Do you agree or disagree with any of my interpretations above?
What stories did you like best from this collection, and why?
What character or set of characters resonated with you the most?
What do you think is the role of the short story, opposed to a novel?
How did you feel about reading a collection of short stories for this month’s book club?