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Book Review

Poignant stories of troubled lives

Ann Harleman sets her Moscow- and Rhode Island-based stories from before World War I to the end of the Clinton years. Ann Harleman sets her Moscow- and Rhode Island-based stories from before World War I to the end of the Clinton years. (michael rosen)

Thoreau’s Laundry, By Ann Harleman, Southern Methodist University Press, 208 pp., $22.50

The lives of Ann Harleman's characters are shadowed by loss. Some dread the prospect, others endure it as it happens, and still others live with the memory. A mother faces a custody battle over her daughter. A wife tends a husband with multiple sclerosis. A father remembers a time when he still had a wife and his son didn't hate him.

In unfailingly delicate prose, Harleman shows us poignant moments of lives from just before World War I to the end of the Clinton years. Some of the stories take place in Moscow, many others in Rhode Island, where the author lives. But whatever the time and place, she shows us people confronting the wreckage of their lives -- always with compassion on her part, and often with courage on theirs.

Harleman does this without any cheap sentiment or glossing over the everyday realities of troubled lives. She masterfully recounts the way tragedy brings with it myriad indignities. A chronically ill child can lead to maxed-out credit cards. Multiple sclerosis ultimately leads to incontinence, the ever-present smell of urine and baby powder. In one of the Moscow stories, she shows how even something as ordinary as shopping for groceries can be a humiliation:

"A young woman . . . hands him half-a-dozen fat mushrooms in a brown paper cone, along with a look of mixed suspicion and pity -- men do not shop for food, unless they're pensioners -- and takes his five-ruble note. Rosanov turns away without waiting for his change and stalks off toward the bakery. When will he stop wearing the stigma -- invisible to him but apparently all too clear to others -- of a man whose wife has left him?"

At least as demoralizing as the indignity of many of these characters' predicaments is the futility of anything they do. Finding themselves with problems that cannot be solved or even controlled by the efforts of one human being, they respond in ways that at best they can't justify, or at worst, further illustrate their own helplessness. Celia of "Thoreau's Laundry" copes with the horror of her husband's progressive MS by taking a series of lovers. In "The Angel of Entropy," the main character's long-overdue outburst at an irresponsible younger sister sends her running out of the house to a purely accidental death. Harleman doesn't assign blame to her characters: Real life is too complicated for simplistic rules. As the protagonist of "Entropy" tells herself after her sister's death, "Missed connections, second chances, the gray area -- without them, how could anyone live? How could you dare to take a single step?"

Despite the sadness and dreary everydayness of so many of the stories, scenes of love and moments of beauty form a continual counterpoint to the bleakest moments. One of the final stories in the collection, "Autumn 1911," is a man's poignant recollection of the year he was 13, the final months before his father left him and his mother. Every detail of that lost world is lovingly recalled: his mother's rose garden, the clang of street car bells, his confused, awakening sexual desires. This elegy accentuates what all the other stories hint at. A wife can love her strong, healthy husband and a woman her beautiful, feckless sister. A boy can enjoy his privileged youth. But no love is so wonderful, no beauty so poignant, no world so appealing, as one that's gone.

Kevin O'Kelly is a regular reviewer for the Globe. He has a blog at notesandcomments1.