by Joan Wickersham, Knopf, 2012; 208 pages; $24.95
This compelling collection by Joan Wickersham, subtitled “Seven Variations on a Love Story,” is about women in love and women who want more than love can possibly deliver, as the metaphorical “news from Spain” in each variation remains disquieting at best.
In the opening tale at a Saturday beachfront wedding, one couple deals with infidelity as another embraces chastity. Each discontent pair sits together on the beach, shells to their ears, believing that “if you could only listen hard enough you’d be able to decipher what you heard.”
In another variation, a biographer’s wife finds passing comfort with the widow of her husband’s subject, a race car champion. Through the simple phrase “oh, my dear” and a comforting embrace, both understand they have loved unattainable men.
In a later story, an old woman in a nursing home is comforted by her daughter, each realizing how close they have finally become, despite an ill-conceived affair that will eventually betray the closeness both feel.
Three of Wickersham’s variations use history in startling ways. In a story reflecting the marriage of Balanchine and le Clerq, a polio-stricken wife, the former mistress of a still-unfaithful choreographer, awaits his return from his ballet company’s European tour. At the same time her African-American caregiver awaits the return of his male lover, who is a member of the choreographer’s troupe.
And in an admirable mixture of shifting styles and voices, two classical opera heroines are reimagined as contemporary friends who eventually understand that love as well as friendship remains painful territory.
The final, remarkable story recounts the story of a president’s wife and a female journalist in love with the same young doctor.
Wickersham’s major accomplishment is in how each story informs the next in ways both melancholic and insightful. A character in the final story synthesizes the lesson realized by the women of “The News from Spain: “We are like game-show contestants who don’t know when to stop. We could go home right now with the money and the washing machine, but we want the car so we keep going and we get the answer wrong, or choose the wrong door, or spin the wheel too hard, and then we have to go home with nothing.”
What we all must learn, as this extraordinary collection reminds us, is “not to expect too much.”
Steven Whitton is a professor of English at Jacksonville State University.