The son of an aging fisherman becomes ensnared in a violent incident that forces him to confront his broken relationship with his father. A woman travels halfway across the country to look for her ex-husband, only to find her attention drawn in a surprising direction. A millworker gives safe harbor to his son’s pregnant girlfriend, until an ambiguous gesture upsets their uneasy equilibrium. These and other stories—of yearning, loss, and tentative new connections—come together in Mendocino Fire, the first new collection in two decades from the widely admired Elizabeth Tallent.
Diverse in character and setting, rendered in an exhilarating, exacting prose, these stories confirm Tallent’s enduring gift for capturing relationships in moments of transformation: marriages breaking apart, people haunted by memories of old love and reaching haltingly toward new futures. The result is a book that reminds us how our lives are shaped by moments of fracture and fragmentation, by expectations met and thwarted, and by our never-ending quest to be genuinely seen.
Profound yet elemental, Mendocino Fire marks the welcome return of a sage and surprising voice in American fiction.
Hello, and welcome to the blog tour for Medocino Fire, an excellent collection of short stories by Elizabeth Tallent. I absolutely love short stories, but I often struggle with reading an entire collection at a time; since each story stands on its own, I tend to treat them like tiny novels, reading one and then moving on to another book. After finishing the book, I’ll pick up the collection of stories again and read another one or two, then move on to another novel. That’s how I read this collection, a bit here and there between half a dozen other books, and it worked well for me. It’s a solid collection, one that’s a pleasure to dip into from time to time.
Each story feels longer than it is, fitting an entire tale, what feels like an entire life, into twenty or thirty pages. At times I almost forgot I was reading a short story collection; I felt like I’d spent so much time with these characters that I couldn’t have possibly read a mere ten pages! This is a testament to Tallent’s economic use of words and, more than that, her uncanny ability to choose just the right words. The right sentence can do a chapter’s worth of work; I’ve always admired writers than can get the point across in such a brief manner (I’m not very good at brief). I’m blown away when I feel ten pages’ worth of emotion after reading less than a paragraph.
The stories are varied in characters — from writers and professors to nomadic youths; from children to parents to deeply, darkly devoted grandparents — but there’s an underlying sense of loneliness, as though all of the characters can only be understood so much by the people surrounding them. I’ve been hearing a lot about characters’ likability lately; many readers want to like the main characters, and authors seem to rail against this. I fall somewhere in between: I don’t need to like characters (in fact, I can downright loathe them), but I need to care about what happens to them. And in this collection, I really did. I felt immersed in each character’s life; Tallent made me feel like I knew these characters better than anyone else did, and that understanding made me want to find out where they ended up. (Yes, folks, it’s true: reading does built empathy.)
My favorite story by far was “Mystery Caller,” in which a woman habitually (and anonymously) dials her ex-husband’s phone number and eavesdrops on his new life. It asks a moving question: When does love end? (Or, maybe, Does love end?) I also liked “Narrator,” an exploration of a young woman’s affair with an established author and her outrage at their relationship’s lack of “literary resolution” (of course, that’s not the true source of outrage) when he writes about it later. Although many of the tales in this collection moved slowly, the pace felt thoughtful and deliberate. The only one that didn’t really do anything for me was the title story; it was the only one that felt too long and, at least for me, lacked resolution.
I love novels because they remind me of what fiction can do, the beautiful experience of spending so much time with another person, seeing so much of his life. Novels allow for more scenes, more plot twists, more dialogue, and I enjoy being with the same characters for hundreds of pages so that I can really see it all. But I love short stories because they remind me of what words can do, the piercing power they have when strung together correctly, even — or maybe especially — in small doses. It takes a certain (and rare) sort of focus to write good short fiction, and I always delight when I see it. Tallent is one of the good ones, and I really enjoyed this collection.
Elizabeth Tallent is the author of the story collections Honey, In Constant Flight, and Time with Children, and the novel Museum Pieces. Since 1994 she has taught in the Creative Writing program at Stanford University. She lives on the Mendocino coast of California.
Tuesday, October 20th: Books on the Table
Friday, October 23rd: Bibliotica
Monday, October 26th: A Bookish Way of Life
Tuesday, October 27th: Back Porchervations
Wednesday, October 28th: Olduvai Reads
Thursday, October 29th: she treads softly
Friday, October 30th: M. Denise Costello
Tuesday, November 3rd: Read. Write. Repeat.
Friday, November 6th: Raven Haired Girl
Monday, November 9th: Lavish Bookshelf
Tuesday, November 10th: Dreams, Etc.
Wednesday, November 11th: You Can Read Me Anything
Thursday, November 12th: The Well-Read Redhead
Friday, November 13th: Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews