the american lover book coverReviewed by Cal Cleary

A small town finds itself inundated with drama when a legendary writer falls ill there and must prepare for his death. A former model relives a life-changing romance years after everything she had was taken from her. A hairdresser comes to terms with how easy it is for routine to conquer adventure. An old man comes face to face with his own mortality on his daily walk. These are just a few of the stories that can be found in The American Lover, a thoughtful new short story collection by Rose Tremain.

In any short story collection, there will almost inevitably be some ups and downs. The American Lover is no different. Some of the collection’s shorter stories, like “Man in the Water,” end before they can really connect. Tremain seems to use her shortest stories as a way to punch a single idea, a single emotion, to really make you feel it rather than just thinking about it, but “Man in the Water” is too meditative to really feel like much of anything at all, ending before I could really figure out what it was trying to say. Same goes for “Blackberry Winter” and “21st Century Juliet,” two late-collection stories that end before I really got a feeling for them.

But some of the very short stories manage to capture that emotion flawlessly. “Juliette Gréco’s Black Dress” could definitely stand to be expanded, more a half-formed idea than a fully-fledged story, but Tremain still manages to pull it together almost offhandedly, a single exchange near the end re-contextualizing the story completely. Even more successful are “Captive” and “Smithy,” both of which manage to capture and transform a pair of fairly bleak stories by making them so powerful they feel inescapable. Both stories surprised me, but as I reflect on them, they feel inescapable, a tireless gravity drawing them to tragic conclusions.

But the collection’s true highlight, for me at least, are Tremain’s longer stories. “The American Lover,” “The Housekeeper,” and “The Jester of Astapovo” are all elegant, thoughtful, and beautifully written, each dealing with the fallout from a toxic relationship in different ways. Of the three, and of the collection, “The Housekeeper” may be my favorite, a story in which a Polish maid meets famed writer Daphne du Maurier and becomes the inspiration for one of her most famous characters. But Tremain never settles for cliches; the art of writing isn’t necessarily therapeutic, and the art of inspiration isn’t necessarily clean or fair. Art, like anything, can be inspirational or enervating, depending on the person, and Tremain’s stories are about people if nothing else, about nuanced, impeccably-drawn characters.

The American Lover as a collection is hard to pin down thematically. It’s messy and ambitious and weird and not always totally satisfying; as with life, the best and worst moments of the collection can be side-by-side, or even tangled up with each other. But even in stories like “Man in the Water,” Tremain has a tendency to speak with such insight and descriptive vigor that it’s impossible not to get wrapped up in what she’s saying. The American Lover is sharply observed and beautifully written, with different kinds of stories to satisfy different moods. It’s not a book you can’t put down; it’s a book you want to carry with you as often as possible, waiting for the perfect mood to strike to relax into that next great story.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Cal Cleary is a librarian and critic in small-town Ohio. You can read more of his work at his blog, The Comical Librarian, and you can follow him on Twitter @comicalibrarian.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by W.W. Norton & Company. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.