Review: Edith Pearlman’s ‘Honeydew’

If you have never read Edith Pearlman, you’re in for a lovely surprise, and if you have, you’re in for another treat. Honeydew, her first story collection since Binocular Vision, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 2012, displays deep wisdom about the quirkiness of happiness and human connections. These stories are filled with sly charm and a rich and precise vocabulary. Pearlman even writes elegantly about sex.

All 20 stories have been published previously, but unless your reading includes journals such as Salamander, Ascent and Fifth Wednesday, chances are they’ll be new to you. Less geographically far-flung than the stories in Binocular Vision, many are set in Godolphin, Massachusetts, Pearlman’s fictional Boston suburb of triple-deckers, home to a multicultural mix of doctors, academics and real estate agents, and their often brainy offspring.

Rennie, a recurrent character, is the divorced proprietor of Forget Me Not Antiques. She is a sharp but nonjudgmental observer. Tolerant, patient and known for her “discretion and restraint,” Rennie is privy to confidences along with cast-off treasures. She is forever amazed by the spectrum of what people find appealing but is equally accepting of the man who “dropped off his wife like a day-care child” and the “rascal” who buys prewar brooches and bracelets for his mistress and delicate Victorian rings for his wife.

Honeydew is ripe with often bittersweet, unconventional love stories that somehow manage to encompass loss and pain yet reaffirm the value of living. In Castle 4, Pearlman pulls off a trifecta of romances centered in a Victorian Gothic hospital near Godolphin. Among the unlikely sextet of lovers is Zeph Finn, a solitary young anesthesiologist who has trouble “talking to anyone who wasn’t on the table.” This changes when he connects with a 36-year-old woman dying of spinal cancer. The septuagenarian author’s matter-of-fact attitude toward mortality shines through when she writes, “IV poles were their best men,” adding a few paragraphs later, “She died a week later of renal failure — more or less peacefully, as such things go.”

In Blessed Harry, Myron Flaxbaum, an unassuming Latin teacher at Caldicott Academy, Godolphin’s private day school for girls, is rattled by an invitation to speak on “The Mystery of Life and Death” at an English university. Although the invitation is quickly revealed to be a scam, it causes Myron and his family to take stock. Pearlman comments wryly, “The family had been fortunate so far, unless you were silly enough to consider fat bank accounts and granite kitchen counters signs of luck.”

In Pearlman’s stories, happy families are most definitely not all alike, and many would not be considered happy by common standards. The divorced narrator in Cul-de-sac, a real estate agent contemplating a financially liberating second marriage, re-evaluates her priorities after dropping off a package for the sloppily voluble neighbor she previously disdained. She’s shocked to discover “these people indifferent to the ordinary conventions of table manners, these people of no restraint. These people steamed in happiness.” Pearlman’s weight-bearing word choice here — “steamed” — is typical of her precision; it perfectly captures the redolent, warm scene her narrator comes upon in the neighbor’s crowded kitchen.

Like Alice Munro, Pearlman deftly encapsulates whole lifetimes in compact stories by focusing on pivotal moments that reverberate over decades. Hat Trick considers the unexpected fallout from a parlor game in which a young widow, “addled by bereavement” challenges four nubile 19-year-olds, including her daughter, to pick their future husbands’ names from a hat, insisting that “people are more similar than different” and husbands are essentially “interchangeable.” Fifty years later, the daughter reviews what became of all four girls, reassuring her mother on her deathbed, “You did a marvelous thing. ... We are all happy enough.”

This concept of “happy enough” is central to Honeydew. In the powerful title story, Alice Toomey, headmistress of Caldicott Academy, finds herself pregnant by her married lover, the father of an anorexic student obsessed with insects (including the coccidae, whose sweet excrement is called honeydew). When she realizes her lover has no intention of leaving his wife, Alice adjusts her expectations, a bow to circumstances at which Pearlman’s characters excel. And in finding a solution that gratifies everyone, Alice hopes to convey to the misguided girl the lesson that “life could be moderately satisfying even if you were born into the wrong order.”

In other words, flexibility and realistic expectations increase your chances for contentment. So, too, does reading Pearlman’s wise, scrupulously cultivated stories.

Heller McAlpin reviewed this book for The Washington Post.