Spider Love Song and Other Stories

Fractured families populate Nancy Au's provocative 17-story debut collection, highlighting disappearing parents--whether by choice or by death--and the children left to endure and survive. Au draws on her Chinese heritage in her narratives. Some of her characters are deeply affected by recent history: some are escaping the horrific tragedy of the Cultural Revolution, and others have the in-between identity of being an immigrant. Still others are steeped in a cultural legacy that incorporates magic, fox spirits and dragon gods. Lest readers worry that darkness overshadows, Au proves herself quite adept at sly, affecting humor.

In the titular "Spider Love Song," a stranger knocks on the bright red door belonging to 10-year-old Sophie and her grandmother and requests their phone to call a tow truck. While she waits, the woman claims to have been Sophie's mother's college roommate. Sophie knows this to be untrue--her mother commuted daily to school from home. She realizes the woman is there to test the village rumors about the "crazy" abandoned pair.

Children without parents also surface in "Wearing My Skin," in which a mother and daughter "became [their] own Unit after Dad died," and seemingly thrive on the phone-sex calls that ring on the red Batman phone. In "Mom's Desert," a daughter recalls the day her philandering father moved out, and "Lincoln Chan: Pear King" features an angry teen finally recognizing envious loneliness in his orphaned best friend.

By the book's end, Au's unpredictable cast has embodied far-ranging history, cultures, locations and genres, with irreverently engaging results. For short-form connoisseurs, Au's accomplishments will undoubtedly regale and resonate. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

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