Love actually

Told with deep empathy, these stories of couples, some unlikely and forbidden, draw us in but still fall short

By Ann Harleman
Globe Correspondent / January 24, 2010

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Trained as a social worker, Amy Bloom was a practicing psychotherapist before publishing her first book, a short story collection called “Come to Me,’’ in 1993. With such a background, you’d expect her fiction to focus on characters, and it does. Her subsequent books - a second collection, two novels, and a nonfiction book on transsexuals - explore the workings of the human heart. Among its many manifestations, Bloom’s favorite is love. In fact, it’s fair to say that, for Bloom, love is the ur-emotion. In its many contradictory and confusing forms, it embraces all the others.

“Where the God of Love Hangs Out’’ distills this view to the point of what, in less deft hands, would be formula. What saves the book is partly its structure. The 12 stories include two quartets of linked stories, each focusing on a pair of lovers; the remaining four stories are unrelated to the quartets and to each other. So “Where the God of Love Hangs Out’’ isn’t the usual short story collection; but it isn’t really a novel-in-stories, either. The book’s structure refracts its characters from different angles while hewing to its theme, expressed in the title. The resulting tension between centrifugal and centripetal forces, like a cubist painting, holds the reader in thrall. Bloom creates her own special brand of suspense. Major events happen off-stage, in the interstices between stories. We don’t wait to see what happens next, but rather, to see the next angle on what’s happened.

That next angle nearly always surprises. William and Clare, the unlikely lovers in the first quartet of the stories - “people with three children, two marriages, and a hundred and ten years between us’’ - first seduce each other in bathrobe and pajamas by the light of late-night TV. The overweight, out-of-shape, resolutely gourmandizing William is between heart attacks; yet his touch through Clare’s double layer of nightclothes “captured my whole body’s attention.’’ There are great comic possibilities here, of course, and Bloom exploits them. When William suffers an attack of gout, the lovers’ tryst takes place at his sickbed, with ”his foot uncovered and resting, like the royal turnip, on a round velvet pillow.” But each time their unfolding affair threatens to turn slapstick, Bloom shows us these characters’ inner lives in all their deeply human complexity, and we find ourselves, willing or not, on their side.

William and Clare’s affair ends in a brief, surprising - and surprisingly happy - marriage. The newly widowed Clare’s grief takes the strange form of a breakfast-table conversation with a marauding raccoon. “ ‘Oh, I miss him so much,’ ’’ she says. “ ‘I didn’t know. I didn’t know that I would be like this, that this is what happens when you love someone like that. I had no idea. No one says, There’s no happy ending at all.’ ’’

If getting readers to identify with late-life love, with its sagging flesh, varicose veins, and shortness of breath, poses a challenge, consider incest. The second quartet of stories opens with Julia, her small son Buster, and her 19-year-old stepson Lionel, just after the death of her husband, father to both boys. Julia has raised Lionel from the age of six, and they’ve always regarded each other as mother and son. But the night of the funeral finds Lionel in Julia’s bed, and she finds it impossible to reject the agonized young man.

The next day, she does send him away. But these two remain inalienably mother and son, with many more years still to play out; and we watch them struggle to find their footing on the fault line that this one night has shown them. ”Step-ties are like long-distance relationships, workable only with people whose commitment and loyalty are much greater than the average,” Julia reflects when, after a decade and a half of estrangement, Lionel finally brings his own small stepson to visit.

Bloom gives us their continuing story in snapshots, a series of ordinary events with extraordinary access to their minds and hearts. Knowing them so deeply takes us beyond judgment.

The French saying, “tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner’’ - to understand all is to forgive all - might have served as an epigraph to “Where the God of Love Hangs Out.’’ We are surprised not only by the characters’ thoughts and feelings - or rather by Bloom’s insight into their thoughts and feelings - but by our own reactions to incidents that in bald summary we would regard with distaste or disgust.

Such deep understanding comes at a price, however. Bloom’s focus on her characters’ inner reality leads her to render their exterior lives - their looks, the landscape, the weather, smells, sounds, touch - sparsely. Their inner voices are dead on, utterly true; their dialogue, on the other hand, is sometimes generic, sometimes forced. And the conciseness that Bloom - as she has said in interviews - values in the short story form can occasionally feel sketchy. In addition, three of these 12 stories appeared in Bloom’s previous books, making this new collection not so new, after all. After the dense, dark richness of Bloom’s recent novel, “Away,’’ “Where the God of Love Hangs Out’’ is like a box of meringues. Delicious - but it tantalizes as much as it satisfies.

Ann Harleman is the author of two story collections, “Happiness’’ and “Thoreau’s Laundry,’’ and two novels, “Bitter Lake’’ and “The Year She Disappeared.’’

By Amy Bloom
Random House, 201 pp., $25