Thursday, July 12, 2007

Pia Ehrhardt in New York Times

My pal Pia Ehrhardt's short story collection received a very favorable review in the the New York Times yesterday. Hooray!!! Huzzahh!!!

Families Lost, and the Ties That Fray

Published: July 11, 2007

“Writers, to my way of thinking, are no more free in their choices than most people,” the author Tobias Wolff once said in a Paris Review interview. “Our material chooses us; certain things engage us, certain things do not.” A pair of new writers proves Mr. Wolff’s point quite clearly with their debut short-story collections: In “The Mother Garden,” Robin Romm explores the loss of a parent who dies young (in most cases, a mother) and in “Famous Fathers & Other Stories,” Pia Z. Ehrhardt excavates sexual infidelities and unraveling marriages.

By Robin Romm
191 pages. Scribner. $22.


By Pia Z. Ehrhardt
166 pages. MacAdam Cage. $19.50.

In Ms. Romm’s impressive collection of 12 stories, a dead or dying parent is featured in 10 of them. And for the most part she delivers, offering surprising takes on the universal subject. The collection opens with “The Arrival,” told from the perspective of Nina, a young woman spending a week with her dying mother and emotionally withdrawn father at a cottage on the rocky coastline of Oregon. “My mother’s going to die,” the story begins. “This is fact. And there are things that must be done. Last week she instructed us to donate her retirement savings.” Hope for remission has long been dashed. “We’ve gone from hoping for miracle cures to just hoping the sandwiches are good,” Nina says of their daily existence.

As is true with many of her stories, Ms. Romm skillfully introduces an element of whimsical surrealism that brings more life — and sadness — to her characters’ experiences. In “The Arrival” a young stranger, Gracie, “an oversized Thumbelina,” literally washes ashore, and her presence sets off a reach-for-the-Kleenex dynamic within this small family unit doing its best to prepare for pending death.

In the next story, “Lost and Found,” a marginal father who had disappeared early in the narrator’s life suddenly re-appears in the Arizona desert, naked, with a note that reads: “This is your father. Do as you will.” The father moves in with his estranged daughter and settles “into the rhythms of cohabitation.”

Their domestic tempo is thrown when the father begins to bring rowdy friends home from a garage where he has found a job. Rising tensions and unspoken disappointments eventually give way to further loss.

In the entertaining title story, the narrator undertakes an unusual experiment of creating a garden of “mothers” to replace the one she lost. “Laurel’s the newest arrival,” Ms. Romm writes. “She won’t behave. ‘Don’t put me next to Agnes,’ she says. ‘That heifer.’ ‘That’s mean,’ I tell Laurel as I jam her feet into the tilled soil. Her kitten heels make good digging tools and I’m able to get her wedged in deep.”

As is often the case with collections, not all the stories succeed. For example, Ms. Romm takes a stab at meta-fiction with “No Small Feat,” in which the narrator becomes enraged that her boyfriend uses her dead-mother material to his own literary ends. Unfortunately, this lighthearted story doesn’t serve the collection well. This reader prefers Ms. Romm’s imaginative stories of mortality rather than a satirical take on her recurring theme.

The subject of loss shifts toward the romantic with Ms. Ehrhardt’s collection. Her stories are heavily populated with characters engaging in empty, adulterous affairs that largely lead nowhere. The implicit sadness of these broken relationships resonates further with Ms. Ehrhardt’s choice of setting: New Orleans, before the city itself became broken. The reader follows Ms. Ehrhardt’s dispirited characters through the lively streets of the French Quarter. The scalloped rooftop of the Superdome perforates the horizon. Sisters jog along the scenic trails of the Tammany Trace.

Surprisingly, one of the less effective stories in this collection is “How It Floods,” in which Ms. Ehrhardt takes Hurricane Katrina head-on, portraying an abusive triangle among a seductive woman (an incest survivor, the reader quickly learns), a civil engineer and his boss, hours before the levees break. The despair — of the characters and the city — loses its poignancy when the impending catastrophe takes center stage.

Ms. Ehrhardt examination of affairs deepens when she brings two generations into these emotional entanglements. For example, in “Tell Me in Italian,” Renny confronts her father, who is having an affair with an ex-student who is now a family friend while Renny is involved with her accountant, Mike, who is married with a son. “One part of me wants to compare notes with him, adulterer to adulteress, talk about the tastiness of stolen time, the clean slate for strange foods, intrepid vacations, untried positions — because who wants the template of another couple’s sex?” Ms. Ehrhardt writes from Renny’s perspective. “I could talk for days if I forget my mother.”

The collection’s most successful story, “The Longest Part of the Day,” moves between the point of view of 15-year-old Jilly, who goes missing when she takes a ride with Jimmy, the grocery bagger from Piggly Wiggly, and her mother, who is having an affair with her ex-husband’s brother. Ms. Ehrhardt deftly captures the repercussions of a narcissistic mother caught in the undertow of her own desires, and the unexpected tenderness that surfaces between Jimmy and Jilly. It’s quite amazing what Ms. Ehrhardt accomplishes in a mere 24 pages. It is, in short, a great story.

In “Running the Room,” the complexity of mother-daughter relationships is also examined. Gail takes culinary-arts classes at a community college and dreams of opening a restaurant with her mother, who has become distracted by her affair with a city councilman, Eddie Royce. “Some nights I just drive around after class, roll down my windows to catch the sound of sprinklers or the smell of cooking through an open window, and try to see the world in some new way,” Gail says about the time before she retrieves her mother from her meetings with Eddie. “Sometimes it works.”

With both these collections, the authors offer glimpses into new ways of seeing the world as they write about their chosen subject matter — and sometimes it works.

S. Kirk Walsh is a fiction writer in Austin, Tex.

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At 11:00 AM, Blogger Ms. Theologian said...

It's a great great mention. I'm so happy for Pia.

And I just tagged you for a meme.


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