Second Shot

In Case We’re Separated

by Alice Mattison

I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation. The books are Runaway by Alice Munro and In Case We’re Separated by Alice Mattison. Yes, I was busy reading last week!

Normally I talk about one book at a time, but in this case, there were too many similarities to ignore, and not only the names of the authors.  Normally — again — I prefer long books, the longer the better in fact, and I tend not to read short story collections. I like to fall in love with characters and I need to be wooed over the space of several hundred pages. In this case though, I thought I’d give these two short story collections a shot.  The similarities I mentioned — both revolve around the lives of women, and both are specific to a location. Alice Munro’s collection, Runaway, was the more exotic for me personally, because she mostly writes about life on the West Coast, the midwest and in Canada. Cold places, and many of the people seemed cool, at least on the surface. The stories were tied together by their one word titles — Runaway, the first story, is about an unhappy wife and her meddlesome neighbor. But is she really looking for escape? Or is the neighbor the one looking to run? Tricks is a great story about mistaken identity with a nasty kick at the end, and Powers is the sad tale of a woman who seems to have them, and how her gifts don’t prevent her from being used by the people around her. The stories are beautifully written, Munro writes particularly sharp dialogue, and you can just feel the simmering anger, tension, hope, and love just under the chilly exterior of these women, their lovers, and their families.

No one simmers in Alice Mattison’s In Case We’re Separated. These people vent, rage, yell, and love each other in a way I found somewhat familiar. All the stories are set in a Jewish family in New York. It’s an ingenious device — the first story is about Bobbie Kaplowitz and her married boyfriend and is set in 1954. The next story might be about her granddaughter in the 70’s, and the next about that granddaughter’s third cousin, who was mentioned in the first story. My favorite was called The Bad Jew, and it brought back many of the seders I’ve been to, full of friends and family, both Jewish and as we call it, ‘everybody else’.  Like those long dinners, in these stories everybody gets a chance to step forward and tell their tale. Interestingly, the author tells us in an afterword that she followed the pattern  of a kind of poem called a sestina, repeating topics throughout the stories, including a glass of water and a map that might be wrong. I didn’t realize it while I was reading, but it added to the cat’s cradle of family relations that make up this book.

It isn’t fair to say one book was better than the other since you really need to judge things on their own merits. I felt closer to the generations of Jewish women in In Case We’re Separated, but I also found Alice Munro’s writing to be razor sharp and a pleasure to read.

I don’t know if I’ll start taking on more short story collections but it was certainly worthwhile, and I found things to love in both of these books.

I’m Kim Alexander and the books were In Case We’re Separated by Alice Mattison and Runaway by Alice Munro.

Want to talk about books? Email me at Kim dot Alexander at XM radio dot com. This is Fiction Nation on Book Radio, SiriusXM Channel 80.

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