(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Amy Bloom’s short stories is that she examines the hidden contours of her characters’ lives without presenting them as unsavory. Though she frequently focuses on sex and sexuality in relationships that may be adulterous, incestuous, or simply painful, her focus is not on presenting them voyeuristically or moralistically. Instead, her focus is usually on what her main character finds uplifting or renewing about a relationship that defies conventional expectations, and secondarily, what in this relationship is too painful for words.

The first and most big-hearted of the stories in this collection is “Love is Not a Pie,” and is the story which most explicitly explores the underlying views of love which tie the various stories together. Told from the point of view of Ellen Spencer, a law school student, on the day of her mother’s funeral, the story explores Ellen’s memories of one particular summer spent at a lake house with her parents, her sister Lizzie, a friend of her parents, Mr. DeCuervo, and his daughter Gisela. As the summer develops, Ellen begins to realize first that her mother is having an affair with Mr. DeCuervo, and later, that her father has full knowledge of and is probably a full participant in this affair. How such a three-way relationship developed, and how her mother was able to remain close to both men while keeping her family life stable, are questions that Ellen lives with until after her mother’s death, when, at her funeral, Ellen learns that her sister Lizzie had known for years about their mother’s affair with Mr. DeCuervo.

The story’s title comes from the mother’s explanation of how she was able to handle such a situation. “Love is not a pie,” she told Lizzie, meaning that giving love out to different people does not mean that there is less love for each; their mother loved each person in different ways. Ellen imagines trying to explain all of this to John, the man she is engaged to marry, and believes that he would never understand; certainly she could never explain it to him. Deciding that love should not necessarily be “normal,” and that she is not ready to marry a man whose expectations would be of a normal home life, she resolves not to marry John, and calls him to tell him so. When he responds by pointing out that they have already ordered the invitations, she knows she has made the right decision. Love, for her, as it was for her mother, and as it is for many of the characters of this story, is too important and too amorphous to confine only to a preestablished, socially established view of a normal marriage.

The dilemma that many of Amy Bloom’s characters face is that they associate sexual desire with transcendence. Wanting either sex or transcendence, they go looking for the other as well. Though they meet with only limited degrees of success, the author is clearly sympathetic to their quest. Thus, two of the stories, “Song of Solomon” and “Faultlines,” bring us to the point where a deep, yearning passion is beginning to be fulfilled. “Song of Solomon,” the more tender and spare of the two, follows a young single mother who is sinking into the gloom of a depression and tracks down her baby doctor on his way into a temple. The author presents us with the moment of mutual recognition, attraction, need, and fear that passes between the two, but ends the story perfectly and sweetly with the gesture of communication which will take the man and woman into the future together at least for a short time. “Faultlines” follows Henry DiMartino through an evening when he has invited the woman he has been fantasizing about over to his house, so that he can meet her boyfriend, and she can meet his wife. Despite the social tangle, Henry and the woman, Mary, do find themselves wrapped together in what the author describes as “a perfect kiss,” and the sexual affair that they were both hoping for but also hoping to avoid is off and running; all the complications that have previously been hinted at are certain to follow.

“Faultlines” is actually one of two connected stories in a section titled “Henry and Marie,” and those stories are loosely connected to a trilogy grouped under the title “Three Stories.” Marie is Henry’s wife, and her story, “Only You,” tells of her unhappy slide into middle age, brightened by an unexpected sexual awakening thanks to her hairdresser, Alvin Myerson. Though sensitive in its portrayal of Marie, the story is written in an occasionally awkward present tense, and has an unnecessary glibness of tone in its opening (“Marie, who is not a very sexual person…gets almost all her needs met at The Cut Above, Alvin Myerson’s beauty salon”) and at other points throughout the story.

More successful as a series are the stories which feature David Silverstein, a psychotherapist, his wife and former client, Galen, and their two daughters, Rose and Violet. David’s story, “Hyacinths,” focuses on a childhood accident in which his cousin Willie was shot in the chest while the two boys were playing in a barn. The accident pushes his father into a pitch of...

(The entire section is 2094 words.)