Sunday, January 04, 2009

Famous Fathers and Other Stories by Pia Z. Ehrhardt

The first time, I read this collection in one feverish night and woke up in the morning with a sense of Ehrhardt’s writin' powers, but overwhelmed by the stories’ subject matter. The review for this book was originally going to be a single word: DIVORCE!

Luckily, in the snotty haze of the last week, through the mysterious loss of the novel I was in the middle of, I reread my reader’s copy of Famous Fathers and Other Stories. Wow. The second time around, each story flaunted its own merits; there is very little flab hanging off this small volume and the reread really underlined that. And, despite my first impression these stories, though they involve divorce, are really about women and their relationships, both familial and romantic. The best stories are the first and the last: “Running the Room” and “Driveway,” both meditations on marriage and mothers in love.

From “Running the Room:” “On the Causeway my mother fidgets in her seat. We’re in my Miata and her perfume is overpowering. The first semester she actually went to the classes with me, pre-Eddie, and driving across the lake the talk was all restaurant. She came up with the name Bijou and I like it, although I know a poodle with that name.”
The daughters in these stories watch their mothers for reflections of their own desires, for justification for the things about them that other people might find distasteful. This seemed very real to me, and yet like a really fresh point of view.

From “Driveway”:
“I don’t talk to my husband, Hugh, about Trista, because he’ll think something’s wrong with us. He’ll think I envy her freedom, that I could run off on him and Eric and leave them a note by the phone on the counter:I don’t want this. He’s already told me what she’s done is abandonment. He thinks there’s a thick black line between a woman who stays and a woman who leaves.”
The characters in Ehrhardt’s stories know of course that some days there is barely a whisper of gray separating the two and that truth is what drives the women and baffles the men in the stories. Yeah, the desire to be loved (lots) lurks in all the ladies in all the stories in this book, but Ehrhardt makes the reader .

One story that departs from the marriage and mothers (and the middle-aged woman viewpoint) is about daughters. The title story “Famous Fathers” is told in a passionate voice, that of a high school senior named Katie with severe Daddy issues. Despite her almost repulsive need to be loved by her small-time politician dad, there is something compelling about the character and how she places herself in her town and family’s hierarchy. Her younger sister who, in Katie’s mind, “tried to drown herself for [her] father’s attention,” has a popular blog that reinterprets the family’s every move, a neat move by Ehrhardt that reinforces the smallness of Katie’s world. I like the choice of a main character with such narrow desires, it made me consider how open one’s world is at 17.

Lastly, I want to mention the other character that appears in most of these stories—New Orleans. Or rather, I want to mention how it doesn’t really appear. The words are there, the places are mentioned, but nothing sticks out or seems special about it. I don’t know if it matters to the enjoyment of the stories, the way that the setting just sits there feels a bit weird post-Katrina.


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