Edith Pearlman's short stories have often been compared with John Updike's, and the comparison is apt. Born in 1936, Pearlman has published four collections. Her 2011 collection, Binocular Vision, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. What makes her so good? A glimpse into Honeydew's fictional world provides some answers.
For years, Pearlman has populated her fictional town, Godolphin, a "leafy wedge of Boston," with great characters. She revisits it often, as in "Honeydew," included in The Best American Short Stories 2012. Besides Coccidae droppings (also known as honeydew), it's about a headmistress at a private girl's school, Caldicott Academy, who must confront her pregnancy by the married father of one of her students. In "Blessed Harry," Mr. Flaxbaum, who teaches Latin and coaches the chess club at Caldicott, has been invited to give a lecture in England--or, unknown to Mr. Flaxbaum, maybe he hasn't. And there's Rennie, who runs the Forget Me Not antique shop in Godolphin, who shows up in two stories.
Rereading each of these 20 intricate gems reveals their meticulous structure. Every story is brief, no longer than 20 pages or so. The shortest, "The Descent of Happiness," is barely five. Its narrator, Emma, looks back on a visit her father, a country doctor, made to an elderly lawyer friend, with young Emma in tow. She always feared the lawyer's dog, James Marshall. On this day the dog barks loudly, Emma flees, falls. Face on the ground, she looks closely at a maple leaf's intricacies before being swept up and hugged by her father. That one moment is the whole story, one that Emma can't forget: "I have never been so happy since." Many of Pearlman's stories, like Joyce's, end with an epiphany.
Pearlman says she likes "solitaries, oddities, charlatans, and children. My characters are secretive," like the repressed middle-aged Gabrielle in the intriguingly titled "What the Ax Forgets the Tree Remembers." That story surprises with its quiet journey from the horrors of female circumcision suffered by Somali women to the joy and love of lesbian desire. All of the powerful emotions are depicted in a rich, controlled prose, one of the earmarks of a Pearlman story. Whether it be for carefully dissecting her characters' feelings or observing tiny details, Pearlman reveals her acute eye time and time again: one character's sadness is "always wedged under her breast like a doorstop," and a man has "teeth like cubes of cheddar."
The collection has a distinct, Winesburg, Ohio feel to it. Like Sherwood Anderson's classic, Honeydew is a portrait of America, only this time it's the East Coast in the 21st century, as painted by one of our finest literary artists. --Tom Lavoie, former publisher
Shelf Talker: In the tradition of Joyce, Chekhov, Updike and Munro, Pearlman's surprising, memorable stories are joys to behold.