- Twists of Life
If the "other" existed in a vacuum where we could dissect it, project it in the now-popular third dimension, consider it from afar, it would be something we would welcome with open arms. Of course, the "other" does not exist in a vacuum. It lives and breathes amongst us, and it is that very presence that makes it so difficult to accept or comprehend. We want walls and fences to keep the "other" out. We declare the "other" blasphemous, a heretic, a sinner, a cancer on society. We try to kill the "other" literally and figuratively. The "other's" face is broken, and the picture ends up on the cover of Time. The "other" is imprisoned in Cuba. As we have so often before, we turn to fiction to provide the necessary vacuum. Patricia Henley's new collection, Other Heartbreaks, does not venture into any new ground in its attempt to explore the "other" in the family dynamic. It is, however, a fine example of an expert storyteller spilling her talents on the page.
Henley is no stranger to success in contemporary fiction. With two books (Hummingbird House  and In the River Sweet ), a National Book Award Finalist credit, and several appearances in prominent anthologies, she has clearly cemented herself in the writing and reading universe. Success, of course, does not necessarily breed excellence, and resting on one's laurels is almost always a sign of giving up. Henley does not give up.
The stories in Other Heartbreaks unfold for the reader as each paragraph and, in some cases, each line reveals a new turn in the character's makeup or situation. We learn that a brother has died, that a marriage is dissolving, that a once ripe relationship has molded and gone stale. All of the stories use this approach of unwinding the character's world. The anticipatory nature of these stories is such that the reader is constantly preparing him or herself for the next twist, but these are not twists of fate so much as twist of life, the purest form of twist.
In one story, a partnership between two lesbian lovers is slowly dissolving amidst one of their family's demise and a routine family reunion. Another story pits a daughter and mother who have different views on religion. In "Sun Damage," a daughter searches for her mother after her father's death. The stories center on loss and salvation, often found in the unexpected. The estranged lovers in the opening story, the lesbian lovers find some solace in the simplicity of routine and the family's closeness around an evening fire where a young niece provides some relief. The collection ends with a separate section that carries the title "Other Heartbreaks" and here we meet Emma and Joe March. In these stories, Henley creates a family of "other" relationships that lead the reader from Joe's memories of his father to a Buick Skylark to Ireland.
At times, some of the stories feel a bit formulaic in their approach, feeling as if they were born as much in an M.F.A. workshop as anywhere else, but this is never true of the characters. As they unveil themselves to the reader, they take on characteristics that while they may seem commonplace and insubstantial in the moment, grow to become something beyond simplicity or happenstance. For example, Emma, a teacher who has a special connection with a student who she goes to visit in Ireland, ends up traveling alone due to Joe's decision to stay home with their grieving daughter. Emma's solitary travel allows her to explore her own "otherness" and kindle a relationship with the widowed mother of her former student. This movement is common throughout the stories. Characters are often displaced or on the move when they experience their awakening or are presented with a choice. It is a natural connection, the movement and the exploration of the "other" since that "other" is displaced or on the move. In Lord Dunsany's novel...