Although Merrill Joan Gerber has published more than fifty stories in such magazines as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Mademoiselle, and Redbook—she has published more short stories in Redbook than any other contributor—this volume is only her second collection of short fiction to appear in twenty years. (In addition, she has published three novels and several books for young adults.) Gerber, a highly competent writer who is at times capable of outstanding stories, many of which are included in this collection, deserves the wider critical recognition that this volume has brought her. Five of the stories in this collection originally appeared in magazines: one in Redbook, one in The Atlantic Monthly, one in Virginia Quarterly Review, and two in the Sewanee Review. It is not surprising that Gerber publishes so widely in both popular magazines and literary journals: Her work is readily accessible, her narratives straightforward, her prose never strained nor awkward nor stilted. Furthermore, her characters—usually sensitive, sympathetic, intelligent—have wide appeal. The protagonists in these stories are all women or girls, often Jewish, usually middle-aged, middle-class housewives with families. Gerber’s strength as a writer lies in her ability to portray with sensitivity and humor the dynamics of family life—in particular, the relationships between middle-aged women and their aging mothers, and the relationships between middle-aged mothers and their adolescent daughters. Her characters are common, ordinary, middle-class people, and her accomplishment as an artist lies in that traditional realistic realm of rendering the special individuality of ordinary lives.
The structure of the typical Gerber story is along classical short-story lines: The time frame is highly focused, usually within a span of a few days, often within a few hours, with the action structured around one central dramatic event that involves the narrator and, usually, other members of her family. Of the four stories that make up the last half of this collection, three are structured along these lines. All four stories are interrelated, with the same narrator and the same set of characters. Although each story builds on the others to form a larger whole, it should be noted that each stands on its own as a separate entity, with its own form. Indeed, three of these stories were originally published in different magazines: “The Mistress of Goldman’s Antiques” appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review; “I Don’t Believe This” in The Atlantic Monthly; and “Witnesses” (under the title “What’s a Family For?”) in Redbook. Readers of Gerber’s moving novel An Antique Man (1967) will recognize the poignant sensibility, the deftly evoked setting (the greater Los Angeles area), and the characters: They include Janet, the narrator; her sister, Carol; their widowed mother; Janet’s solid, middle-class husband, Danny; and Carol’s husband, Bard, a hippie. (Janet also narrates earlier stories about her family and her husband, Danny, in “We Know That Your Hearts Are Heavy” and “Many Are Cold” in Stop Here, My Friend, 1965, Gerber’s first collection.)
Nevertheless time has passed: The 1960’s have become the 1980’s—the time of these four stories—and Janet is no longer the mother of a small child, Bonnie, but of three daughters: Bonnie is now fourteen, and there is also Jill, twelve, and Myra, nine. Janet’s mother—the events of An Antique Man revolve around the death of Janet’s father from leukemia—is an aging widow who lives alone, carrying on the business of her dead husband’s antique store. The events of “The Mistress of Goldman’s Antiques” are centered on an afternoon family visit to Janet’s mother, Anna Goldman, who lives near the antique store, in a small apartment, in a deteriorating section of Hollywood and who sleeps in the same king-size bed that she shared with Janet’s father. Anna has remained totally committed to her husband’s memory, not seeking another man to share her life, but now she is growing old, and Janet fears for her safety and well-being. There are bars on the window of her apartment, and the drapes are never drawn—for safety as well as privacy. Her mother rarely cooks, so Janet brings her dinners that she has prepared in her own home during the past month and frozen. The love bond between Janet and her mother remains strong, but the situation is now different, as Janet realizes, “I don’t know how to reconcile my two mothers—the one with the radiant smile who used to wait for me with arms...
(The entire section is 1907 words.)