Book Review: “The Company of Strangers, Jen Michalski’s Collection of Tiny Heartbreaks and Keen Hopes” by Rosalia Scalia

Jen Michalski’s newest book, The Company of Strangers, gives us 194 pages of tiny heartbreaks and keen hopes. In a collection of 15 short stories, we see a slice of America through an array of characters who strive to manage and navigate complex lives, and at times, unexpected, heartbreaking events that befall them with the hope of finding happiness. Some characters—young and inexperienced—are coming to grips with their sexual orientation, while others who are older and who have long known their orientation are coming to grips with dissatisfaction and/or loneliness that plagues them. Regardless of the characters and situations, we root for all of them to succeed, to like and love themselves and to make choices that will bring them a small piece of happiness, if not joy. 

In the title story, “The Company of Strangers,” we meet a trio of characters—an orphaned pair of young adults, Clay, and his younger sister Casey, and Clay’s wife, Ginny—living in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Clearly, the name of the setting speaks to the theme of the events as they unfold. Written in second person point of view, this story follows Casey, who is gay and who betrays her brother Clay through an act of desperate loneliness by having an affair with his wife. Knowing she has nowhere to go, Clay kicks her out of the house. The story chronicles Casey’s evolution as she learns more about herself and the world after she befriends an elderly gay couple vacationing in the area. As the siblings circle each other, Casey begins to understand that while lovers/girlfriends may come and go, while acquaintances and friends may cycle in and out of her life, she will only ever have one brother. More importantly, the most important person she can come to know and love is herself.

Charles, whom we meet in “Great White,” is an older gay man who had served as a sperm donor and who now finds himself striving to be a decent father-figure to his daughter Rachel, who calls him Uncle Charles. He is also striving to be a good friend to Rachel’s mother Linney, his former university student grieving the loss of her wife Marti to cancer. Since the death of Marti and the dissolution of his own relationship due to infidelity, circumstances have propelled them to live as a family of sorts. The three of them journey to Charles’ childhood home in Provincetown New England for a much-needed reset. Charles goes on a solo jaunt with the hopes of meeting a lover, and when he does, the complexity of his relationships with his daughter and her mother and with his ex-lover come into stark focus. Later, when on a whale watching outing, Charles realizes that standing behind Rachel and beside Linney might be the best place for him to be.

In “Scheherazade,” Dan, who teaches history at a community college, becomes intrigued with a colleague Regina, who teaches English. Regina is grieving the loss of her daughter from suicide, a fact that fascinates Dan. Regina’s self-contained life and the suicide of her daughter attracts him. Despite having a partner with a 17-year-old daughter whom he is co-parenting, his fascination with Regina seems surprising and unstoppable until it culminates in an evitable conclusion. Although he likes being a father to the 17-year old, although on the surface, his life seems settled and comfortable, although the growing attraction between Dan and Rachel is the focus of the present action, we learn by the subtle hints that Michalski drops that life at home may not be copacetic. Michalski weaves in hints that Dan’s life is slowly being suffocated by his overcontrolling partner Karen. We begin to see that Dan’s attraction to Regina is a desperate call of help, a reach for a lifeline.

In “The Long Haul,” perhaps one of the most poignant stories in a collection of gut- wrenching stories, we meet Tony and his now adult nephew Raymond, both nursing wounds about the disappearance of Raymond’s sister Joelle. Tony had been babysitting Raymond and his sister when Joelle goes missing. The story explores the aftermath of a strange kind of loss, the one that comes without answers, the one that continues to haunt because it is unexpected, not tied to anything knowable. In this piece, Michalski explores how years of self-blame and guilt arrest the lives of all who are left behind, especially those who feel most responsible:

“Sometimes I just stand outside the restroom at the welcome centers, and I shout ‘Joelle!’ just to see if anybody looks up.” Tony’s glass is close to his lips, his eyes watery.

Within these 15 stories, Michalski illuminates the tensions and travails of 21st century families in all their configurations. She shows us through these stories that no matter one’s orientation, family structure, everyone suffers grief, uncertainty, resignation and is nourished by joy and love. She paints a poignant and powerful picture of heartbreaking losses, tenuous reconnections, painful revelations, timid escapes, satisfying reunions, and even courageous leaps of faith as characters navigate toward and not away from each other in their struggle to make a life.

The Company of Strangers, by Jen Michalski. Braddock, Pennsylvania: Braddock Avenue Books, January 2023. 194 pages. $17.00, paper.

Rosalia Scalia is the author of the story collection, Stumbling Toward Grace, (Unsolicited Press, 2021). Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous literary magazines, including Amarillo BayNotre Dame Review, North Atlantic ReviewPebble LakePennsylvania EnglishThe Portland ReviewQuercus ReviewSmile, Hon, You’re In BaltimoreSouth Asian EnsembleSpout MagazineTaprootOklahoma ReviewBlue Lake ReviewWillow Review; and many others, including publications in Canada and in India. Her story, “Henry’s Fall,” was a finalist in the Gival Press Short Story competition. The story in Taproot won first prize in its annual literary fiction competition for 2007, and “Uncharted Steps” merited a 2010 Individual Artist Grant from the Maryland State Art Council. “Sister Rafaele Heals the Sick,” first published by Pebble Lake Review and nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2005, appeared again in an anthology titled City Sages: Baltimore (CityLit Press, May 1, 2010), a collection of stories by 32 Baltimore writers, including Poe, Anne Tyler, and Alice McDermott, among others. Her story, “You’ll Do Fine,” was a recipient of the Willow Review Award for the Spring 2011 issue. An earlier version of the first chapter of her novel-in-progress, Delia’s Concerto, was one of seven finalists in a competition held by the National League of American Pen Women and a later version was published as a short story titled,“Soul Music.” She earned a master’s in writing from Johns Hopkins University in 2003. She lives in Baltimore with her family.

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