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Telling It Like It Is: A Maladjusted Book Club Discussion

September 12, 2011

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.

Family

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?

Art

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?

You can catch Robin Black reading from her work this Saturday, September 17th at Musehouse: A Center for the Literary Arts, brand-spanking-new in Chestnut Hill!
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{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Kate September 12, 2011 at 1:39 pm

I adored this book. Reading it was like eating a rich cake. I wanted it all at once and I wanted it to last. So of course, I finished it about a month ago and my thoughts have gotten a little soft.
Tableau Vivant struck me deeply, these currents of secrets – the stroke, the affair – and the need to hide both our own problems and gaze away from other’s problems to look strong and feel whole. To save face?
At first, I didn’t feel as drawn into A Country Where You Once Lived, but of all the stories the odd grace of the lies at the end has lingered with me. When is a great kindness a deception?
Each story deserves more. I may reread one today and come back.

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Jana September 12, 2011 at 1:46 pm

That’s a great question, Kate: “When is a great kindness a deception?” I think the issue there is that Zoe does not see her father as a source of comfort, and her deception makes him brutally aware of that. If he didn’t know his wife was going back, all would be fine. He could hold onto the illusion that his visit made some headway in their relationship. The sadness is that he knows the truth by the end, knows his wife is needed in a way he never will be again. I can imagine that knowledge stinging for a long while to come. I guess on the most surface level, he is being left out of his own family. So sad.

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Kate September 12, 2011 at 2:12 pm

I read that end differently, and had to go back to see. You’re right, he wasn’t needed at that moment, but instead of shoving him out, both his ex and his daughter contrived to make this terrible moment for them comfortable for him. And that is doing a lot. (As an aside, I wouldn’t have wanted my dad, who I adore deeply, around after my miscarriage. I wanted women who understood my grief.)

“He wants her to hurry to the next train so it can carry her back to where she’s needed. He doesn’t want to slow her down explaining how he feels. That he isn’t angry. That he isn’t insulted or hurt at being sent away. He is overwhelmed – by his daughter’s kindness to him. By the kindness of them both. It’s so much more than he deserves. It breaks his heart.”

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Cathy September 13, 2011 at 11:57 pm

I read the actions of Zoe as a form of an apology. She sounds like she was a pill and it’s easy to place blame but leaving for two weeks, that’s a parent’s hell. Maybe she feels that and, now I’m going to superimpose, but maybe she feels that now that she’s trying to have child of her own that she is paying some sort of price for her behavior in the past.

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Jana September 14, 2011 at 9:23 pm

What an interesting idea, that Zoe is punishing herself…. A+, Cathy! :)

Vanessa September 12, 2011 at 10:15 pm

Unfortunately in my small, Southern town it was not easy to get my hands on a copy of Black’s book so I have not been able to finish it but I am over halfway through. So far my favorite story has been “If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This”. I just love the style of writing/narration that Black chose for this story and the subject matter was just how you said, Jana, so close to home, so personal. We all can share a story like the character’s or like your own. It’s really a sad commentary on ourselves and our society of how we are so often selfish without justification or even comprehension. It seems to be a part of our nature…something we almost can’t control. But as a perfectionist ;) there is little I admit that I cannot control.

“The Guide” was also one of my favorites but I haven’t pinned down yet just why. I normally don’t choose to read a collection of short stories so I am glad for the encouragement to do so this month. Great choice! Getting off to read some more because I just cannot wait to finish.

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robin black September 12, 2011 at 11:28 pm

Kate, I am so glad you liked the book. And Jana I can hardly thank you enough for this amazing introduction to it. If either of you has a question for me either tonight (though it’s late. . ) or for answering tomorrow, I would be delighted to talk here. And thank you both so much for all the kind words!

I will say the end of that story is really meant to examine how confusing it can be sorting through whether any particular act is an act of kindness or of coldness. In the end, I think of what Zoe does as being kind – but only in the context of how distant she feels from her father. I think by pretending to send her mother home as well she is trying to protect him. But I also think it could easily look as though there’s a cruelty to the whole act. I guess my point is that it’s impossible to exactly interpret much of human behavior.
But whatever the perspective, it is a great, great treat, even honor, to hear people discuss the work. So thank you!

robin

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Kate September 13, 2011 at 12:57 am

It is a beautifully written book. Truly.

Jana, like all good literature, good short stories drive questions into your mind.

I’ve been digesting what you commented. There are so many acts of hopeful kindness that are actually cruel and sometimes an act of coldness is gentler than direct kindness. I know this in life, but hadn’t quite put it that way before. Fascinating.

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Vanessa September 13, 2011 at 4:02 pm

I finished the story with a sense of hope. Perhaps Zoe and her father will never have the relationship that he wanted but by understanding her actions towards him, in the end her father seems to understand that their relationship is okay. Not what he wanted but okay. And even though we might have estranged relationships, they can be our relationships and if we come to terms and at peace with them they are okay even if not what we imagined. Just finished this story last night before drifting off to bed and loved it!

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Jana September 13, 2011 at 9:12 pm

Vanessa,
I find it interesting that you say this: “even though we might have estranged relationships, they can be our relationships and if we come to terms and at peace with them they are okay even if not what we imagined.” How can they be okay? I tend to be an all or nothing kind of girl. Estrangement is very hard for me to handle. How to come to terms with it? How to comfort ourselves with it just being “okay,” especially when it is such a profound relationship, this one of parent and child?

You can’t answer this, of course, but I think it’s the hardest thing to accept as an adult. I sort of want the illusions of childhood back. And I really hope my children and I have something that’s more than “okay,” though there is no guarantee, is there?

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Vanessa September 14, 2011 at 9:33 am

I think the terms “estranged” and “okay” are slightly relative, especially in my description. It depends on what the individuals involved compared to how society or others define is estranged and okay. We have a certain definition of what a relationship should look like but who determines that? I guess as I read the story I realized that Zoe and her father’s relationship was not, at first, what I would have thought as a perfect relationship but as the story finished and I could see hope in her father, I realized that perhaps I cannot define another’s relationship. Perhaps it might not appear perfect to me but it works for them, it’s okay, they’ve come to peace with their relationship.

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Denise Nielsen September 13, 2011 at 11:32 am

I can’t read this time of year…too much to do getting back into fall routines and the return to work (which I love, don’t get me wrong, but which takes so much energy) but reading this post makes me want want want to read this book. I’m going to see if I can find a copy and perhaps I will have time to check back in later after I’ve read it. Love the insightful comments.

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Jana September 13, 2011 at 9:12 pm

Stop back any time!

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Kerri September 13, 2011 at 8:55 pm

I think you raise a good point about how we tend to judge people without knowing their circumstances. I’m guilty of this every time someone zips past me in traffic. I never assume a real emergency might be at hand. Many of the stories in this collection show what is beyond the surface and often dive deep into that which individuals, couples and entire families would rather avoid.
I especially like the way we see the characters learn more and more about each other in “The History of the World.” The relationship between Kate and Anna unfolds before us after Kate returns to the restaurant where she and her twin brother last dined. We are surprised to see that Anna, a waitress who first seems unimportant to the story, becomes central to Kate’s transformation. As they spend the evening together, sharing food, wine and more, they hear each other’s stories and begin to recognize their similarities. Through the touch of another, Anna seeks to be felt, to be known. Kate, on the other hand, realizes about herself, Anna, her brother, and everyone that “…it may be difficult for us all.”
Although they deal with heartbreaking topics, these stories are gentle. They go down smoothly. They avoid crossing over into sentimentality. The writing is careful and not overdone. I don’t think there’s a page without a line or phrase worth marking to ponder later. A thought-provoking selection for any book club!

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Jana September 13, 2011 at 9:07 pm

Thanks for such a great comment and also for bringing up the last story, “A History of the World.” I loved this story, but wasn’t able to fit it into my opening discussion essay. The last image of flower petals and Eve has stuck with me months after reading it for its simple beauty and profound impact on the character. (Not to mention, I love any story more if it takes place in an Italian city.)

And I can’t help letting my imagination run wild with your last paragraph. You seem to be begging the question: What wine might represent these stories best? An oaky Chardonnay? A spicy, blackberry and vanilla Pinot Noir? Really, I think this might be the most important question I’ve asked. Ever.

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Vanessa September 14, 2011 at 9:35 am

“These stories are gentle. They go down smoothly…” What a perfect description!

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Cathy September 14, 2011 at 12:11 am

I think my favorite in the book is Pine. It was heartbreaking to see that Claire could not move past the death of her husband and instead chose to live in a world of pain and sorrow. Even her daughter seemed to want more, knew that it was time to move on, but she just couldn’t do it. This story also seems to keep with the theme of death and how it leaves an impression on a person, one that cannot be easily shaken, if shaken at all. Only buried deep to be suddenly brought to the foreground and reignite the pain all over again. That is real.

I see another theme in that people have to live through their pain alone. As much as one wants to think logically, there is no translation to the heart. The heart feels what it wants to feel and you are the only one who understands what inside of you.

I loved this book. I loved the collection of short stories. I loved how deeply each story moved me in some tragic sense. I still wonder why I love this book so much and I think it’s because it’s very real. It represents life – love and loss in its various forms.

And Jana – how cool that the author herself is here to comment! This book shows true creativity to unravel these people’s lives so richly, to get into their heads, to explore the mysteries of feelings that humans have all felt. Great read. I wish there were more and it didn’t end, but the ending was spectacular.

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Kate September 14, 2011 at 1:32 pm

Pine is such a rich story! How do we cope with loss? of limb? of partner? In moving forward do we build our lives to soften the memories or to accentuate them? Do we ever move on?
There is so much to explore about how relationships end in the book as a whole. Death and divorce and estrangement. I wonder if we only know our kinds of pain, do we look on other’s pains with envy? Cathy, you’re so right, there is no translation for our heart.

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Jana September 14, 2011 at 9:18 pm

I really enjoyed “Pine” as well, especially the description of how Claire feels at the cooking get-together in the beginning. I thought it was a really accurate depiction of how women act around each other and how easy it is to feel left out.

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Justine September 14, 2011 at 1:11 am

Jana, this is another great pick for the book club; you did an extraordinary job describing and synthesizing this collection of short stories. I’ve always loved short stories so I’m glad we get a chance to read one for the book club.

I think Black’s writing is amazing; I’m in awe of the beauty of her prose as well as her knack for capturing the essence of human frailty and insecurities. I have to say though that the permeating sadness and melancholy do get to me sometimes and have to step away from the book for awhile because there is so much reality in it that it doesn’t seem like an escape.

In fact, it forces me to face issues that I have conveniently placed at the far corners of my mind, such as our mortality, our ability (or inability) to cope with tragedy, and the fragile nature of our relationships, especially the ones we have with our children.

“Immortalizing John Parker” had me thinking the most because of the way it forces me to acknowledge my own mortality and how I want to be remembered. It made me think about all the things that in the end will or will not matter.

And I loved what you said about the permeating question in these stories: “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?”

It’s good to know that I’m not the only one struggling to answer these questions. I can say things to strangers (like on my blog for instance) that I find difficult to express to my own family. Maybe that’s why I can intensely identify to the daughter, Brooke, in Tableau Vivant. Her relationship with her mom is akin to the one I have with my own mom, who’s always in the background, never probing, never intrusive, always skirting around the real issues.

And maybe that’s why I’m finding it hard to read the book with relative ease. It’s because I see so much of myself in it. The parts of me or my life that I often have trouble facing. It’s a compliment to the author who can paint a landscape so vivid, with characters who are myriad versions of ourselves – some good, some bad. But mostly human.

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Jana September 14, 2011 at 9:22 pm

What a beautiful comment, Justine! Thanks for sharing.

I actually read these stories more spread out because I was reading more than just one book at a time this summer, and I think that worked well for me. Each one was so rich, it was like chocolate cake. I wanted it, but not too much at once.

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Tiffany September 14, 2011 at 6:47 am

I’m adding it to my list!!!

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robin black September 14, 2011 at 7:34 am

Hi again Folks,

What a fantastic honor it is to “hear” all these comments. I’m amazed by what nuanced readers you all are – and of course I am also really encouraged by all the kind comments. I love hearing all the different interpretations of the stories, especially “A Country Where You Once Lived,” in part because as a writer, I think, one of the greatest things that can happen is when readers are able to, well, read different takes and slightly different meanings into the work. I would hate, hate, hate for a story I wrote to come across as obviously meaning one thing or another. But I love how all these comments hover around the same issues – forgiveness, kindness, what is irreparable, what is unbreakable. Even that sense that Zoe may fear she is being punished for being a “bad” daughter. It’s all in there, and all open for interpretation – and what a joy for me to watch that interpretation unfold!

As for the sadness quotient, I was in a pretty dark place over the years (and years) that I wrote these stories. I never wrote them to all be put in one book, so in a sense, it’s never made sense for me that people would read them all at once. I’ve discovered there are people who love reading them that way, but I’ve also learned that there are people for whom it’s too much. And I think that makes sense. I have always joked that my publisher should have put on a label reading: Take Only As Prescribed: Read 1 per Week.

If anyone has any specific questions they’d like to ask me, please feel free. As I said, it is a complete honor to get the chance to eavesdrop on readers and, even more so, to talk to them.

Robin

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Nina B September 14, 2011 at 10:09 pm

Really loved Black’s collection, which I read a year ago. It ended up sending me off seeking other collections and writing more stories too. There was something so accessible about her stories, yet something incredibly deep too—something to reach for. If that makes sense.

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Jana September 15, 2011 at 7:43 pm

I completely agree, Nina! I think you’ve nailed it. I think they are an important read for aspiring writers.

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Elizabeth Rago October 25, 2011 at 9:22 pm

I was pleasantly stunned by this collection of tales, yet frustrated that the stories could not go on to satisfy my own curiosity! I absolutely loved Clara in “Immortalizing John Parker” and thought for days about her history and how I could get to know her more.
Overall a fabulous and brilliantly written collection which has inspired me to define the characters in my own stories with the same heart, soul and (sometimes) ugly realness that Robin Black did.
(Horrible English, I know, but I am 6 months pregnant and about ready for a glass/bottle of wine. Grammar is the least of my problems!)

I loved the overall tone of sadness, but always felt each of the characters had some spark of hope in their hearts.
I wonder what happened to Clara…

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Jana October 26, 2011 at 9:23 am

I agree about the spark of hope, Elizabeth. I found that, too. The stories didn’t feel especially sad to me, I suppose, because there is so much sadness in life, but it’s often paired with beauty. It’s the beautiful moments that get us through the sad ones. And I think that’s why I read books all the time.

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Finola November 19, 2011 at 8:50 pm

I had promised I would catch up and I did. I finished this book just a little while ago, and I think for me I loved the depth of the characters most of all. Wonderful storytelling and a great book choice. Thanks!

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