This Is a Voice from Your Past

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Merrill Joan Gerber has published seven novels for adults, nine for young adults, three nonfiction works, and now This Is a Voice from Your Past, her sixth collection of short stories. In spite of this output and numerous awards, her work is little-known. One might speculate that she has been unfairly cast as a “women’s writer” because many of her stories first appeared in Redbook, or because such works frequently touch on domestic issues. Whatever the cause, it would be nice to think that this will be Gerber’s breakthrough book.

At least four of the stories collected here focus on the dynamics of family life and thus represent a large portion of Gerber’s work. “Latitude” and “Approval” concern the same couple, Martha and Will. In “Latitude,” the young couple endures Sunday dinner with Will’s parents, Edna and Harry, who fiercely opposed their son’s marrying Martha, claiming that she was unfit for him. At last they have grudgingly accepted the union, but old tensions and oppositions linger, despite the granddaughter who has helped mollify them. Will remains resentful and expresses his anger in sullen passive aggressiveness. The rift has narrowed slowly by a series of gestures: Martha’s cutting Edna’s hair, ritual Sunday dinners, Harry’s desperate search for a screwdriver to lend Will, and finally a parting hug and kiss shared by the two women.

In “Approval” Martha’s parents visit her and Will, and Will is again aloof and preoccupied. Tension and disapproval lurk just beneath the surface when a homeless man comes to the door asking for work. Will’s polite treatment of the “bum” unleashes abuse from Martha’s father, who, it turns out, briefly deserted his family during the Depression. When Will mysteriously disappears, her father’s warnings about the dangers of “bums” make Martha’s hands tremble with fear. Will returns shortly, having left only long enough to give the homeless man their leftovers, but this gesture provokes further attack. Finally, Martha can stand no more: She accuses her father of leaving because he did not want his family, whereas Will wants his. Then, however, she reaches out with a consoling word, reminding her father that he did returnand letting her insights into her parents’ bitter marriage pass unsaid.

“We Know That Your Hearts Are Heavy” and “A Daughter of My Own” feature Janet and Danny, a couple very similar to Martha and Will. “A Daughter of My Own” centers on an archetypal mother-daughter conflictthe birth of the first grandchild and the mother’s offer of help. Unfortunately, mother takes over, so much so that her presence in the tiny apartment becomes oppressive. Janet finally explodes, forcing her mother to leave early. The parting scene at the airport is touching and complicated, with Danny holding the baby for the first time and Janet trying desperately to reassure her mother that she loves her.

Far more complicated is “We Know That Your Hearts Are Heavy,” which describes an extended family during the only occasion to rival a wedding for turmoila funeral. Janet’s rich Uncle Benny has died, and predictably, old arguments and wounds surface. Gerber skillfully depicts family members getting on one another’s nerves as seven people sleep in a one-bedroom apartment. No one sleeps well; breakfast is a disaster. Afterward, talk turns to Benny’s estate and the promises he made to two poor relationsbut there is no will, and none of Benny’s good intentions will be realized.

These stories honestly depict the complicated, maddening, angry, and occasionally consoling institution known as the family. Gerber unflinchingly probes family dynamics, how resentments linger, anger boils over, expectations sour. Like the pigeons vying for shelter on the window ledge outside Janet’s office, members crowd one another, jockey for position, make room, fly off, return. Gerber offers no solutions, allows no cheap sentiment, gives no assurances that today’s truce will result in peace, but the family is affirmed. If that is “women’s writing,” then readers need more of it.

Failed or doomed relationships are dramatized in “Cleopatra Birds” and “Honeymoon” and suggested in “See Bonnie & Clyde Death Car.” In all three, the women characters betrayed by men absent even when physically present. In “Cleopatra Birds,” the husband, Davy, cares more about fishing and raising birds than for his wife. She, a student of African dance, eventually leaves with her African lover, buying Davy a pair of rare Cleopatra pheasantsa symbol of their mutual betrayal. “Honeymoon” is an emotionally complex study of a doomed marriagea young woman drawn to an older man by his maturity and confidence. From the beginning the reader perceives that Rand’s interest in...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Antioch Review 63, no. 3 (Summer, 2005): 598-599.

Booklist 101, no. 13 (March 1, 2005): 1136.

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 2 (January 15, 2005): 71.