book review by Andria Williams (Navy wife, San Diego)
I love a life story like Natalie Serber’s (stay-at-home-mother writes doggedly over the years, eventually publishes short story collection), and I also love Natalie Serber’s stories. Her first collection, Shout Her Lovely Name, is a bright, unsparing look at the relationship between mothers and daughters.
In Serber’s stories, these mother-daughter relationships aren’t just complicated, they are Fraught. The stories are realistic, beautiful, scary, and sad, and Ms. Serber’s eye misses nothing.
Natalie Serber (file photo)
The titular story opens the book, and it’s a terrifying look into the mind of a mother obsessed with her daughter’s eating disorder. Serber has said that this story is “closer to the bone” than any of her others, and the fact that her own daughter goes by the nickname “Lovely” hints that there may be an autobiographical aspect to it (much as I hate poking around for autobiographical anything in fiction). The story is beautiful, rareified, claustrophobic — you are riveted, you nearly stop breathing. It’s written in the second person, as a sort of dark “guide” for mothers of an eating-disordered child.
Later, after you have eaten half the brownies and picked at the crumbling bits stuck to the pan, apologize to your daughter. She will tell you she didn’t mean it when she called you chubby. Hug her and feel as if you’re clutching a bag of hammers to your chest (p. 5).
There are glimmers of bleak humor:
‘She called me pathetic-cunt-Munchhausen-loser.’ Where did your daughter learn this language? Your daughter has been replaced by a tweaking rapper pimp with a psychology degree. ‘What does she mean?’ you ask. (p. 9)
I chuckled there, but still read almost desperately, wanting to claw my way out of the beautiful cadence and heartbreaking imagery. The story ends on a note of hope, thank God.
And from there we launch into a whole series of stories devoted to the character of Ruby — a smart young woman who finds herself pregnant and alone — and her years of raising her serious, responsible daughter, Nora. Only one story in the middle of the book deviates from these two characters, making the Ruby-Nora stories a sort of “suite” of linked tales.
Ruby and Nora are fascinating characters — you cringe for Ruby, who’s too smart to always be chasing men who will leave her, and yet does; you ache for sweet Nora, a bright, observant latchkey kid who is painfully aware of the way neighbors judge her mother, who waits up for her mother when she goes on dates. Nora is tremendously loyal to her mother — when she finally goes on a brief trip to meet her father, at age 14, she starts missing her mother before she’d even boarded the plane.
I pictured myself walking off the plane with her fringed suede purse on my shoulder. As much as I wanted to go, as often as I’d imagined my father’s life and how I might fit in, holding her purse, I missed her already (p. 133).
The stories are wonderful, but I always have hangups about the “collection of linked stories” idea. (Are we seeing more of these lately? I also recently read The Chester Chronicles by Kermit Moyer — again, primarily a series of linked stories about one central character.) The novelist in me can’t help thinking: If you really love these characters so much, if you can’t stop writing about them, why not just write a novel?The “suite of stories” idea has all the heart and character-love of a novel, but without the narrative urgency. It’s like seeing gorgeous little film clips of someone’s life, illuminating them, bringing them alive and then letting them go, over and over.
I’d invested a lot of time in reading about Ruby and Nora, and I cared about them, and it wasn’t enough to be left with the image of Nora in her Santa Cruz apartment, working in a bakery, living with a man she doesn’t particularly love. This final Ruby-Nora story (which is not the final story in the book — it’s bookended by a separate short story about another family) didn’t feel like an ending. It didn’t pull things together for the characters the way a novel would have, and it got away with it because it’s a collection of linked stories, so it hired a Closer to take care of final business — that last short story, whose characters I didn’t feel like caring about after all the love I’d felt for Ruby and Nora. (It’s actually a great story. I held a grudge for a day and then I went back and read “Developmental Blah Blah” — that’s the title of the last story — and, like all of Serber’s writing, it stopped me in my tracks. So my initial hostility was unfair.)
But this is more of a complaint against the form, and not about Serber’s writing. You’ll be thinking about these characters for days, maybe weeks. You’ll think about your mother and your daughter and every mother-daughter pair you ever knew, and you’ll fume a bit at how sons get off so goddamn easy.