From its first page, Natalie Serber’s debut story collection plunges us into the humid heat and lightning of a perfect storm: that of American mothers and daughters struggling for power, love, meaning and identity.
Her sensational title story, written in the second person, delivers a gritty how-to manual for anguished mothers of pubescent girls who are slipping into anorexia:
“Notice that she no longer eats cheese. … Then baguettes go too. … Alone at night, start to Google eating disorder …. Realize an expert is needed and take your daughter to a dietitian. In the elevator on the way up, she stands as far away from you as she possibly can. … ‘In case you’re wondering, I hate you.’ Remember your daughter is in there somewhere.”
Remember your daughter (or mother) is in there somewhere could serve as Shout Her Lovely Name’s subtitle. Though Serber’s mothers may have acted wrongheadedly in their own youths, love and fear for a beloved child can drive them to desperation. You’ll find no soft-soaping of the all-too-real here.
“ ‘Guess what, Mom,’ she will say with her new vitriol, ‘I never want to be a chubby-stupid-no-life … loser like you.’ After you slap her, don’t cry. Hold your offending palm against your own cheek in a melodramatic gesture of shame and horror that you think you really mean. Feel no satisfaction.”
This story accomplishes worlds, taking us on the awful roller coaster of a family’s efforts to cope with a daughter’s disorder, while letting us peek into the principals’ minds (though fathers, husbands and boyfriends strike one as affably inept throughout the collection). Always, Serber’s writing sparkles: practical, strong, brazenly modern, marbled with superb descriptions. “Hug her and feel as if you’re clutching a bag of hammers to your chest.” “A vise of resentment tightens around you.” I could fill a book just quoting from Serber’s.
Some of Shout’s stories link to create the saga of Ruby, a college student pining for sophistication when we meet her, and Nora, the daughter Ruby accidentally conceives — two individuals so heart-piercingly fascinating, I didn’t want to let them go. When Ruby realizes she is pregnant by her hapless boyfriend (and too far gone for abortion), she does everything in her power to lose the baby. “She couldn’t become someone whose life was defined by accidents.” Yet despite her fierce smoking and drinking and flinging herself into icy surf, “this was happening to her.”
In Manx, we meet Nora as a lonely kid who, struggling to comprehend her world (and her flamboyant mother’s unflagging man hunt), longs for a pet kitten. In response, Ruby, who can scarcely manage single-working-parenthood, nabs a feral cat from the high school where she teaches: “an emaciated, dark tabby who spent his time hissing at students.” Nora names the cat Phil Donahue after the television host, “hoping the cat would greet her the way Donahue ran to the women in his audience.” Meantime, a neighbor’s father, eyeing Nora, “yell-whispers” to his wife “erratic home life and multiple partners.”
And Serber’s only getting started. Subsequent stories watch Nora come of age, become sexual and begin a young adult’s life, while Ruby strives — raggedly — to hold on.
I can’t say enough about Serber’s physical details: funny, wrenching, perfectly particularized to locate us and fill us with urgency. When an enraged Ruby throws Phil Donahue out of the house for urinating on her best shoes, Nora (who’s tried on one of her mother’s pretty dresses) “slumped on the couch, twisting the red satin in her hands, the front of the dress drooping from the weight of the rhinestones.” These tight close-ups complicate and enrich Serber’s stories, while saving them from lapsing into the sentimental.
A Whole Weekend of My Life follows Nora, now age 14, as she flies from California to Chicago to meet her father for the first time. Unsurprisingly, Marco’s a mortal businessman who regrets his prior foolishness — but remains hell-bent on protecting his current life. I almost stopped breathing, worried for this girl, pondering the man. Serber allows her characters fullest personhood. No easy road is taken. No one’s a simple villain.
In Developmental Blah Blah, the collection’s rowdy final showstopper, Cassie, a maddened housewife, plots her (bland, pleasant) husband’s 50th birthday party while yearning for erotic admiration from her stone-faced psychotherapist. Cassie’s also struggling to refrain from murdering her newly sexual, contemptuous, crafty teenage son and daughter. The story gallops, farcical and sad and infuriating, bristling with pitch-perfect lines. (Hulking, resentful son Ben was once “a buttery sage of a baby.”)
Take my word: Shout Her Lovely Name will reach inside readers, and squeeze. On second thought, don’t take my word. Just read these lovely stories.
Joan Frank reviewed this book for The San Francisco Chronicle.