“For the source of the short story is usually lyrical. And all writers speak from, and speak to, emotions eternally the same in all of us: love, pity, terror do not show favorites or leave any of us out.”
This explanation comes from one of America’s premier short story authors, Pulitzer Prize winner Eudora Welty. Short stories are sometimes discounted as having less authority than novels. But, as a wordsmith myself, I think they are infinitely more difficult to write.
In a short story—at least a good one—every word counts.
Sympathetic People, the new short fiction collection by Donna Baier Stein, includes 14 beautifully written tales of love, loss, and longing. In most cases, the protagonists are mature women living quiet, civilized lives. As they reflect back on roads taken (and not), there is a sense of resigned melancholy that feels authentic and true.
It was a particular treat for me to read this book because I know the author.
I first met Baier Stein in the mid-1990s, when I was working for a direct marketing ad agency in Boston. She was already a fairly famous copywriter, having created some of the industry’s most clever—and effective—campaigns, featured in textbooks and college marketing courses. She wrote a direct mail piece for an insurance client of ours, and the following year, we co-chaired an industry conference. I admired her very much. Years later, when she asked me to co-author The New Marketing Conversation, I felt honored.
This winter, thanks to the magic of social media, I learned about her new book, Sympathetic People. That’s one of my favorite things about Facebook—not just reconnecting with colleagues and classmates, but seeing them in a new light. An old coworker who writes music, sings, and plays the guitar. Another who left advertising and became a veterinarian. A woman I went to high school with who’s a renowned gluten-free chef. Or, in this case, someone I knew as a business writer who had a few stories of her own to tell.
They turned out to be wonderful stories.
In Sympathetic People you’ll find everyday themes: divorce, death, disillusionment. The women are not extraordinary, although they are educated, sensitive, and literate. Each commits a daily act of hopeful heroism merely by continuing to live.
Many of Baier Stein’s characters are mothers. In “The Secrets of Snakes,” a woman reconsiders an extramarital affair after an encounter with her son’s reptile. In “News Feed,” another mother relishes the opportunity to take care of her grown son after he has surgery. And, in “The Great Drawing Board in the Sky,” the story that I found most disturbing in the collection, a single mother has trouble coming to terms with her young son’s erratic and growingly aggressive behavior.
Another theme that reappears is that of the other woman. In “Coming Clean,” a woman visits her lover at his office, relishing his discomfort and imagining the scene she might make but won’t. Another woman flees to Greece to give her lover “more room” to leave his wife. And “Versions” and “The Second Time the Bird Escaped” serve as bookends—similar encounters, told first from the perspective of a new wife and then from that of an ex.
There’s a bittersweet ambivalence to all of this. One woman asks her husband if he ever kissed their lunch guest, his very attractive former colleague. “No,” he answers. “Did you want me to?”
One of the sweetest stories, “The Jewel Box,” is about a woman visiting her dying grandmother for the last time. Together, they weave a brilliant tapestry of heaven, based on a long-ago trip to the St. Louis Zoo.
Each of the very short stories in Sympathetic People is like a little jewel. In just a few pages, Baier Stein gives us a finely focused glimpse into an entire life. It was hard to put the book down, but I paced myself, savoring a single story each evening. And, with my schedule these days, that worked out well.
I’m an enthusiastic reader, but also a modern midlife woman, juggling work, motherhood, and marriage. Like Baier Stein’s characters, I think about my past, choices I’ve made, and lessons I’ve learned. And like the women in these stories, I get up every day and keep going.
Good writing is not about gender (something I try to remind myself every time I protest the utter absence of women authors in my daughter’s high school English curriculum). Sympathetic People is exceptionally good writing. Anyone can appreciate the author’s craft, her eye for detail, her ear for dialogue. But, above all else, these stories are for and about women—who we are as wives, mothers, artists, and lovers. I think you’ll see yourself or someone you know. I certainly did.
In Welty’s words, “They don’t leave any of us out.”