Where do you draw the line between crazed and crazy? Between protecting your children and mothering them? Family life, with an emphasis on parental love, is dangerous territory in Amy Gustine’s debut. This carefully written collection of intense, sobering stories reminds us that the human condition is no piece of cake — but once in a while there are some tasty crumbs.
Gustine’s characters tend to be alienated and damaged by life. They miscommunicate, hurt each other repeatedly, typically out of weakness rather than deliberately. But they save each other, too, often in surprising, small moments of caring.
The stories’ settings and plots range impressively and the characters include a jilted physician processing immigrants on Ellis Island; an Israeli mother searching for her soldier son, kidnapped by Hamas; a cat lady in contemporary Ohio who has acquired 50-plus felines after the deaths of her mother and husband. There’s also a pilot in Phoenix unfairly accused of rape; a nanny seeking revenge on the judge who consigned her to foster care; an atheist family that relocates from liberal Berkeley to a conservative town; and a physician who is having a depressing affair with a breast surgeon as relief from his role as caretaker of his three daughters and his ill wife.
In other words, these are complicated lives. Gustine is particularly skilled at immersing the reader in varied scenarios while communicating what is at stake, creating an atmosphere of tension in which disaster looms.
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In the darkly comic Coyote, a mother is so obsessed with the safety of her toddler son she jeopardizes her marriage and her son’s well-being. She dreams that a preschool classmate hands him a syringe, and she refuses to buy a swing set because it may attract pedophiles. She obsesses about West Nile virus and worries when new neighbors are of Middle Eastern descent — their last name is Iranian, therefore “almost certainly Shiite Muslims. Muslims usually blow themselves up in busy places. They don’t kill single little boys, right?”
We drop in on Mike, the radiologist having the affair, when there is an interruption in his daily routine of incessantly checking on his disabled wife and worrying about matters such as his middle daughter’s difficulties with pre-algebra. Shayla, the physician he is sleeping with, asks him to arrange an immediate head scan for her mother and to read the film right away. The news isn’t good; the way it is delivered and received points to the vast distance between the lovers. After he delivers the bad news, he responds “Anytime,” to Shayla’s words of thanks. She thinks, “Anytime? How many mothers with brain cancer was she going to have?”
Goldene Medene, an account of three Polish immigrants making their way through the medical inspection at Ellis Island, is one of the strongest stories. Told primarily from the point of view of Dr. Spencer, a young physician devastated after his girlfriend refuses his marriage proposal, the story recounts how Spencer hones in on a possible replacement — a Jewish woman with an uncanny resemblance to his lost love. Spencer tries to maneuver the situation to put her in his power, but two other immigrants intervene. When Spencer retaliates, the three immigrants join forces, leaving Spencer chagrined and impressed: “[T]hey’d retrieve whatever remained of their luggage, then step out into the cold and the strangeness of a land they had never seen, didn’t know, couldn’t speak to. … There was no knowledge, only hope.”
Gustine unites these disparate tales with a shared emotional truth: as flawed as it often is and whoever we may be, love is our redemption. Even a worried mother in the collection understands the equation: “[T]he math of a mother’s love? Infinity, she thinks.”
Andrea Gollin is a writer in Miami.