As implied in its title, Louise Marburg’s latest, award-winning collection features lives in transition. Each tale is a journey centered on a woman who appears at first to be secure in love, education, professional achievement, affluence, or all four. But we soon observe the intrusion of an unsettling personal experience or family issue previously held at bay. As uncertainty threatens each woman’s composure, life seems to pause until she can accept a new perspective on it.
In “Alouette” a married teacher of French at a private elementary school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side longs for a child. This sudden need at age 37, reinforced by fertility treatments, represents abrupt change in her life. Her husband, she knows, “didn’t care about children one way or another.” Even her gynecologist is skeptical given her age. But she is in thrall to a mystical urge, a form of magical thinking—as she was, perhaps, during a brief infatuation with a fellow teacher seven years earlier—until she makes a slightly non-maternal admission: “I want someone to miss me the way I miss my mom.”
When Lisa, a 41-year-old book editor in “The One That Scares You Most,” learns that her harsh, self-pitying mother has had a stroke, she is dismissive. Sheltered in her Park Slope brownstone with an economist husband and charming five-year-old daughter, Lisa is unmoved by her under-achieving brother’s urgent message: their mother wants to see Lisa before a likely second stroke occurs. But Lisa hasn’t spoken to their mother in twenty-three years. She has no interest in seeing a bitter woman she refers to as Suzanne, even as her brother assures her that the stroke has changed their mother’s temperament and outlook. Their father is no better able to convince Lisa to soften toward a dying woman. But when her brother mentions a long ago trip with their mother to Nantucket, something like an emotional stroke overcomes Lisa. She remembers the adventurous and loving young woman her mother once was:
Lisa recalled the crashing waves and Suzanne’s hand in hers; the blue horizon that sliced the ocean she imagined went on forever. “Watch the waves,” Suzanne had said. “When you see the biggest one, the one that scares you most, hold your breath and dive under it.”
And Katrina, a successful artist in “The Weather of Menopause,” is suffering hot flashes and sensing her body losing its appeal to her husband. She suspects he is having an affair with a legal client, a well-known actress, who has helped land lucrative representation for Katrina in major New York and Los Angeles galleries. Katrina worries that the actress’s help makes it impossible ever to know if her paintings were good enough on their own. Only when her studio assistant brings his paintings to her for an opinion can she resolve these doubts about herself:
The paintings hit a satisfying spot, brought forth a recognition. They reached a destination that had eluded her for thirty years. He was terribly gifted, this Jeremy James or Jones. She had never thought very deeply about her work, but she recognized what she didn’t have.
“You don’t really have to be all that talented, Jeremy, you just have to be lucky,” she said.
For many of Marburg’s women in transition, the solid educations and promising footholds in stimulating careers don’t always work out as expected. Even when they do, it isn’t quite enough to stave off melancholy and disappointment. Nor do her characters find the rush of adult romance sustaining or lasting. This constant sense of realism augments the already powerful impact of her fiction.
A freelance graphic designer, at almost 30, dislikes nearly everything about New York in “Double Happiness.” Her career hasn’t met expectations in the seven years since she arrived from art school in Philadelphia. And she is put off by most of the men she meets. There is just something jaded and sinister about New York, this Ohio girl feels. But she’s reluctant to confront the implications of her opinion until a downtown oracle grants her permission to go home.
And the earnest young woman at the center of “Even-Steven,” recently laid off as an arborist for the Central Park Conservancy, only weeks after her husband has left her, discovers that family members who could help her with some rent money or solace are actually more interested in taking her help and kindness for granted.
But none of these are more heartbreaking than the title story in which Amelia, an unmarried advertising executive pushing 50, journeys home to Baltimore where her insurance salesman brother is recuperating from a heart attack. She hates the drab family life which her brother Glenn has embraced. Her memories of their profligate father and violent mother are so harsh and vivid that no one—not her brother’s wife, or their boozy daughter, or Judy, an old friend of her mother’s—will believe her. Returning via Uber to her brother’s house, after visiting Judy, Amelia starts checking train schedules, so anxious is she to return to her life. But Glenn’s address is still in the Uber’s GPS, which announces: “You have reached your destination,” as the driver stops behind an ambulance outside the house.
“Is this where you want to be or what?” the driver said.
“No, it’s not,” Amelia said. “But here I am anyway.”
Not for the faint of heart, Louise Marburg’s thoughtful and challenging stories find compassion in disquieting epiphanies that reveal the elusive truth, the self-contradicting dimensions, of human nature and life itself.
You Have Reached Your Destination won the Eastover Fiction Prize in 2021.
You Have Reached Your Destination, by Louise Marburg. Rochester, Massachusetts: Eastover Press, November 2022. 168 pages. $20.00, paper.
Robert Crooke’s latest novel, Letting the House Go, was published in August 2022 by Unsolicited Press.