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BOOK REVIEW

Short tales of lives in small upheavals

By Karen Campbell
September 29, 2010

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Jessica Treadway, the award-winning author and associate professor at Emerson College, writes about people we vaguely seem to know — the neighbors down the street, acquaintances from childhood, relatives of long-ago friends. They are mostly middle class, white, suburban, and there is an easy familiarity to the rhythms of their lives, rhythms that seem immediately recognizable.

But in her new story collection, “Please Come Back to Me,’’ Treadway drops in on these folks at inopportune moments. We seem to be catching them during a bad time, in the midst of some kind of shift in their lives. It’s usually not so much the stuff of high drama and cataclysmic events, but rather the little domestic crises that throw a chink in the works, spinning off heartbreaks and revelations.

However, instead of digging into these moments with fervid intensity, Treadway offers a series of telling snapshots that trace the arc of change over time. It’s spare, almost leisurely storytelling that asks the reader to fill in the blanks. In some stories, the time is too compressed, giving us too little opportunity to bond with the characters. We bound through decades in mere paragraphs.

The title story is really a novella, and it’s a powerful, beautifully crafted story of a marriage tested by illness, as newlywed Dorrie spots a strange-looking mole on her husband’s arm. “Shirley Wants Her Nickel Back’’ is nearly as substantial in length but not as persuasive. A young mother deals with the aftermath of her husband’s drunken car accident, which resulted in the death of a 15-year-old girl. The story meanders and grows tedious by the end of its nearly 50 pages, but Treadway seeds the tale with some effective descriptions.

Norine, who has resorted to delivering newspapers after husband Jimmy loses his job, reflects on her new morning routine. “It was four o’clock, black and silent, a time when it felt illegal to be awake. . . . The black outside her windows made her feel small and chased.’’ At one point, she takes off in the car, driving nowhere in particular, “hoping to find something in front of her that she had not been expecting, something that would surprise her into being grateful for the miracle of her own breath.’’

Other stories also deal with dead-end dreams and dashed hopes. In “The Nurse and the Black Lagoon,’’ a mother clings to denial as she grapples with her son’s arrest for a disturbing, senseless crime. In “Dear Nicole,’’ a man reconnecting with an old flame has the shattering realization that he married the wrong woman. “Revelation’’ is an odd little examination of romantic obsession. “Testimony’’ mines the fragile, mercurial nature of memory.

One of the most devastating, realistic stories, “Deprivation,’’ follows two young parents grappling with a baby crying nonstop for hours. It traces the furtive, murderous impulses they both feel at times, impulses tempered by parental love but tainted by dark guilt.

Most of Treadway’s prose is clear and searingly direct. She tells her stories without flash or florid embellishments. But the little insights and illuminating details are all the more vivid in their spare dryness. Instead of telling us what the characters are feeling, she shows us, as when a mother hears of her son’s troubling diagnosis in the title story: “Mrs. Manning untied the sash of her robe without looking down at it, then pulled the lapels closer together across her breasts and retied the sash in a knot they could all tell was too tight.’’ That says it all.

Karen Campbell, a freelance writer based in Brookline, can be reached at karencampbell4@rcn.com and through her blog at www.dancingink.weebly.com.

PLEASE COME BACK TO ME By Jessica Treadway

University of Georgia, 216 pp., $24.95