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An eminent practitioner of the minimalist short story whose pieces are sometimes no longer than a page, Hempel (Reasons to Live) flirts with a longer form in this third collection, her first in seven years, which includes a novella and seven stories. The short pieces, ranging in length from a paragraph to several pages, are perfectly captured moments. In "The Children's Party," casual dialogue and familiar scenes hint at the sadness and loneliness shared by the adults and children gathered for a summer party at a lake. Other tales evoke the knockabout fun of young families on a summer weekend, the torment engendered in a woman by the graveyard across the street from her house and the emotional impasse of a solitary female traveler visiting a familiar vacation spot. But the titular novella is the standout here. It's presented as an extended letter composed by a woman recovering from a nervous breakdown; the intended reader is a famous painter she once met. The epistolary form fits Hempel's stylistic strengths, allowing her to dismiss the requirements of narrative and, instead, link together, through carefully detailed vignettes, whatever wanders into the woman's fragile mind. Stories about the woman's life in an institution, recollections about her mother's suicide, questions about the painter's life and a devastating moment in which she notes that she sleeps in the same position in which her mother died are presented in spare, acutely focused prose that gradually reveals just how skewed the woman's connections to the world have become. A gentle but morbid humor, less present in the stories, permeates the novella, investing it with a tone that is wonderfully effective and true. (May)
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May 26, 1998
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