Book Review: Widow

In 18 stories, Latiolais writes of many things, but always in the same unmistakable, intelligent voice, and always mining another well of grief or memory. She grieves the loss of many things, chief among them her husband, who committed suicide. We do not find that out until the last story, called "Damned Spot," the name of their much-beloved bull terrier.

We do know that she is a widow in the first story, "Widow." When filling out a medical questionnaire, where one is given only the choices of being either married or single, "she writes in the word widow. It's not that she's being unreasonable about the questionnaire; rather, it's an attempt to give them some sense of her actual physical state. She has been surprised by grief, its constancy, its immediacy, its unrelenting physical pain."

Not all the stories are autobiographical, but all explore the boundless territory of memory and grief. In "The Long Table," an aunt is amusing children at a wedding party by making dough animals. " 'Make a giraffe,' " they begged... and the aunt, her eyes trying to smile above cheeks lifeless with the exhaustion of her failing marriage, said no, she didn't really have any sense of how to make a giraffe; he had taught her only the lion and the lioness." She goes on to make a giraffe and then a snake, "a beautiful snake," she said with determination, " a beautiful snake with scales like rose petals." She will persevere and learn new ways--alone.

There is a vital, vibrant thread of eroticism throughout many of the stories; these women are not without longing, real physical longing that they can name, quantify and revel in remembering. Latiolais's stories has that felicitous quality of writing in an elliptical fashion so that we do not end where we began. The stories start at their center and then meander around and curve inward to the deepest redoubt of the heart. She is a no-holds-barred writer, moving us to laugh out loud and to unexpected tears.

"Gut" is one of the stories that has a laugh on every page. Latiolais doesn't do schtick; this is the real McCoy. Abby meets Herb at a knife store while buying an oyster knife. What ensues is love and marriage and exotic travel abroad to affirm Herb's thesis. "Herb's primary inquiry has been how the human digestive system shrank and the human brain subsequently grew... once our colon got downsized, our brain could upsize." Believe me when I tell you that this is very funny stuff.

Every story in this collection is uniquely enjoyable on its own terms. While all the stories are different, what unites them is Latiolais's brilliant use of language, wit, her placement of real people in real situations and a limitless compassion and understanding of human pain and joy. --Valerie Ryan

Shelf Talker: Michelle Latiolais has written a group of 18 stories unifed by her deep understanding of the pain of loss and the joy that memories can bring.


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