The twelve stories in Willow Temple: New and Selected Stories are about fathers and sons, the “only” child in a family, failed love relationships, and the contrasts between urban and rural lifestyles. Life is arbitrary. Accidents and tragic events occur, sometimes for no apparent reason. Characters find a measure of happiness—but always in the context of suffering and loss. Donald Hall conveys the power of one event to change a person’s life: the suicide of a young man, a minor fender-bender, an act of cruelty by a father, or a first sexual encounter.
“The Ideal Bakery” and “Christmas Snow” revisit idyllic moments in childhood. In the first story a son recalls joyous visits to a New Haven bakery, where his father and he meet lively and indomitable characters. But the story ends with a crushing litany of losses. In “Christmas Snow” a boy’s delight in the reminiscences of his idiosyncratic relatives is overshadowed by an old man’s painful memory of abuse.
“From Willow Temple” and “New England Primer” cover a broader sweep of time and incorporate complex changes in lives and relationships. The first story sums up a mother’s life, and the second story recounts the tribulations of a father’s life—a man whose virtue and morality are an object lesson to his son.
Three of the stories feature the same character, David Bardo, at different stages of life—discovering his parents’ lives are filled with meaningless routines, falling in love with a woman below his class and eventually dropping her, and then, as a married man, engaging in an all-consuming sexual affair with a manipulative woman. The main character in “The First Woman” has similar moral lapses in love relationships; at the end of the story he receives his comeuppance from a woman who knows suffering firsthand.