Joan Wickersham (Photo by Nicholas Latimer)

 

“A story . . . can become close, airless. You cannot stay shut up in your own head anymore; you need a break, some fresh air. Let’s go outside: We’ll take a walk, down a New York City side street. It’s 1944 . . . ’’

This line from Joan Wickersham’s new book, The News from Spain, could easily be a comment on the author’s own view of short stories. At recent readings in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Peterborough, New Hampshire, Wickersham explained her love/hate relationship with the genre. “Too often every word and sentence in a short story points to some pivotal ‘a-ha’ moment. Many stories lack the roominess and depth of novels, which is a quality I appreciate in long fiction.”

Henry James famously called novels “large loose baggy monsters,” a wonderful description of the genre as realized by Tolstoy and Thackeray if ever there was one. But frequently it’s this “bagginess” that gives us a sense of life beyond the pages of the book. Novels are splendid at conveying the whole sweep of history, whether it’s personal or geographic history. While we, as readers, are only privy to specific scenes, conversations, or memories, writers like Flaubert, Franzen, and Faulkner excel at providing clues to both future and past. There is life beyond the pages of the novel, and in the hands of a talented writer, we have no trouble imagining what that life might be like.

As a friend of mine once said after completing a novel whose title I can’t recall: “After I finished, I couldn’t stop worrying about the main character. What’s going to happen to her?” Such an emotional, concerned response is a sure sign that the writer has accomplished his or her task.

 

Joan Wickersham celebrating the launch of The News From Spain at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts (Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

 

The brilliance of The News from Spain is that Joan Wickersham has ambitiously aimed for the scope and depth of a novel, but contained her writing within seven elegant “love” stories, each titled The News from Spain. How she has managed to squeeze so much insight, humor, and inventiveness into 208 pages astonishes me.

Wickersham understands that love comes in many forms and turns the traditional notion of “a love story” on its head. In The News from Spain we experience the rocky, but profound, love between mother and daughter, the discomfort of “settling” for a marriage partner, and the naivete of a young girl at boarding school being used.

As Wickersham poignantly demonstrates, love is a product not only of good and bad choices, but also of chance and timing that is beyond our control:

You meet someone, you fall in love, you marry. You  meet someone, you fall in love, it turns into a disaster. You meet someone, you fall in love, but one of you is married, or both are: you have or don’t have an affair. You meet someone, you fall in love, but are never quite sure if your feelings are returned. You meet someone, you fall in love but you are able to keep your feelings mostly hidden; occasionally they cough, or break a dinner plate, or burn down the kitchen (accidentally? On purpose?), but mostly they stay out of sight when other people are around. At night they have the run of the house. It’s a creepy, even sinister, ménage.

Wickersham’s greatest strength is that her empathy for the human condition runs deep, and she is able to transport the reader into her characters’ lives with humor, precision, and (let’s just be honest) some damn fine writing. If you write fiction, brace yourself for some serious pangs of jealousy. This is some of the best fiction writing I&#