"Nelson's prose is precise and energetic, and her insights delight because they manage to be at once surprising and so right as to seem inevitable."
-- The New York Times Book Review
Antonya Nelson is widely regarded as one of America's most talented women writers -- The New Yorker has named her one of the twenty best writers of her generation -- and with Female Trouble she returns to the short-story form with which she made her original literary mark.
Thirteen wise, funny, and startlingly perceptive stories about the vagaries of marriage, the uncertainties of family, and the revelations of female life, Female Trouble looks at the relationships not just between men and women but also between parents and children, brothers and sisters. Probing the subjects of love, fidelity, desire, dependence, and solitude, Nelson explores the broad notion of family from myriad angles, but always with surprising insight and her trademark offbeat humor.
The title story features a thirty-year-old man carrying on intimate relationships with three different women -- one institutionalized, one pregnant, one purely maternal -- but unable to commit to any of them. "Incognito" depicts a divorced woman whose turbulent teen years are suddenly brought back to her when she returns to her hometown with her own teenage daughter. In "The Unified Front," a husband reckons with his wife's decision to steal a baby while at a famous theme park, and in "Stitches," a disturbing late-night phone call forces a mother to confront her college-age daughter's sexuality and her own adulterous past.
Set in the vividly rendered Southwest and Midwest, these moving stories are dark and honest portraits of people in moral quandaries, gray areas, unclear circumstances -- stories that reveal us to ourselves with disturbing clarity. As always, Nelson astounds with the clean, terse power of her language, and she deftly uses humor to expose the soft underbellies of her tough-talking, unblinking characters. These are stories that will linger in the reader's mind long after they are read.
Uneven but deeply affecting, Nelson's fourth story collection (she's also written three novels) maps the dimensions of the human usually female heart, both in love and in grief. Troubles, as the title suggests, abound: affairs, infertility, mental illness, death. But so does humor (a vacation home where a family gathers "to remind themselves how badly they got along" and a kind of hard-won, essential wisdom ("all a person could do was the right thing," a grieving widow muses, as she reconciles herself to a simultaneously "merciful" and "treacherous" future.) In the title story, a well-meaning but emotionally stunted man attempting to understand the three women in his life the matronly woman he lives with, the pregnant former girlfriend who moves in and the suicidal mental patient he takes for a lover comes to the conclusion that their wants and needs are so complicated that it's time he left town. However poorly that may reflect on him, readers will be tempted to nod in sympathy: Nelson's women in particular tend toward desperation and upheaval. And they have appetites if life were a jukebox, they want the volume turned up loud. Yet their desires are basic: to love and to be loved, to have children, to protect them. The notion of caregiving its successes and failures plays an important role in these stories: in "Loose Cannon" and "Ball Peen," brothers, however unequipped to handle their own lives, try to nurture struggling sisters; in "Palisades," a woman adrift in a vacation town becomes the confidante to a husband and a wife, who tell her the kinds of things they can't tell each other. Cheerful uplifting moments may be rare, but this collection's tales of men and women navigating life in all its messiness demonstrate the prowess of a truly accomplished writer. (Apr.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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March 31, 2003
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Excerpt from Female Trouble by Antonya Nelson
Mama " she said. The word cut through every layer: the dark house, the late hour, the deep sleep, the gin still polluting her blood, the dream still spinning whimsically. All of it sliced away as if with a scalpel by her daughter's voice on the telephone.
"Baby." Ellen emerged from the murk: naked, conscious, attuned. "Baby "
"I'm okay, Mama, but something happened, something happened here." Here was in her college town, two hours away from her parents' home, this her first semester. Ellen felt her heart beating.
"But you're okay "
"Not hurt "
"I'm okay. I'm scared."
Skeered, the children used to say, Tracy and Lonnie, Ellen's girl and boy. "Scared of what " Ellen's house was lit only by the moon and a streetlamp, 3:30 in the morning, the worst of the witching hours. Without thinking she had brought the telephone from the hall to her son's room, where he slept, safe. Ellen had been dreaming about her ex-lover, whom she had been missing now for longer than the relationship itself had endured; this longing now felt normal, a facet of who she was. On the telephone her daughter was almost crying, as if to punish Ellen for her unfaithful dream: look what can happen if you aren't paying attention, if your affections go wandering. "Scared of what "
"What's she scared of " asked Ellen's husband, his breath bitter with sleep and age, his presence here at her elbow similar to his presence beside her in bed: she wanted to push him away, she wanted to pull him close. Sometimes she sunk her teeth into his shoulder and pretended it was erotic. He loved his daughter without hesitation, the way he loved his wife, his son. It was cloying, reassuring, inescapable, horrifying. Secure: like a safety belt or a prison sentence.
"Mama, I was raped." Now Tracy began to cry sincerely.
"What " Ellen's husband shouted. They went back to their own bedroom and he was dressing, muttering, lights were igniting, drawers were slammed as Ellen clutched the phone with both hands as though it might leap through the air.
"Where are you " she asked. "Where are you, darling "
"In my...dorm," said her daughter, and that building erected itself, proud and institutional, enclosing the girl on its fourth floor, in her room full of posters and stuffed bears and empty beer cans.
"Police " her husband asked, as he tried to extricate the phone.
"Not the police!" came Tracy's voice over the line, "it was someone I know." Now Ellen's husband was working pants over boxer shorts, the material bunching at his waist, storming from room to room in search of wallet and keys and eyeglasses and jacket, shirt flapping open like a flag.