"This is a love story," claims Pam Houston's narrator in the beginning of the short story "In My Next Life." However, she quickly points out that it is not the usual type of love story, like a man-and-woman story or even a woman-and-woman love story, although this story does deal with two women. These women fall in love. They just never have sex.
In his remarks about Houston's stories, which were published in Cowboys Are My Weakness, Martin Naparsteck, writing for the Salt Lake Tribune, states that Houston's collection produced some extraordinary tales, which he called "modern masterpieces of the [short story] form." "In My Next Life" is one of the most moving contained in this collection. Taking a break from the theme of unrequited love and poorly chosen mates, Houston tells the story of a woman she calls Abby whom she learns to love. Abby is a sort of horse whisperer, who knows how to train errant horses. The narrator of this story has a problem horse she loves and goes to to one of Abby's classes for help. After meeting, the two women discover they have a strong affinity for one another. They also have a lot in common.
Both women are in relationships with problem men. They develop a strong relationship while continuing to tolerate their men. Although the narrator and Abby never share sex, they might have, the narrator states, had Abby lived longer. But Abby discovers a lump in her breast and waits two years to have it medically analyzed. By then the cancer has spread throughout her body. Having a double mastectomy does not help. Abby decides not to pursue chemotherapy or any other radical treatment. The narrator helps Abby peacefully die.
The beauty of this story is how Houston understates the emotions of these characters, allowing readers room to explore their own feelings rather than telling them what to feel. And unlike the other stories in this collection, the narrator of "In My Next Life" appears to have found someone who truly understands her emotional needs. The irony is, of course, that having finally found this soul mate, the narrator loses her.