It hardly seems credible that this 2014 debut collection was written by a woman recognized as one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” in 2013. She has such old eyes.
Antopol’s stories have very clear and inescapable hooks; we as readers recognize, accept, and ultimately rejoice in her power over us. Once begun, her stories are impossible to resist. We stretch them out, hoping they will last the night, the week. The human element in her characters is painfully evident and we wish to see how someone else would solve the familiar and not-as-familiar dilemmas we face. This glorious collection is a lasting achievement.
In “The Old World,” an aging divorcee marries a new immigrant from the Old World and wonders how he could be so lucky. In “Minor Heroics,” two Israeli brothers show their love and admiration for each other in the rough-and-tumble way brothers do, but when much more than adolescent pride is at stake. In “My Grandmother Tells Me This Story,” a grandmother tells a granddaughter with a personality too much like her own to dial herself down a notch and “enjoy yourself for once…rather than scratching at…these horrible things that happened before you were born.”
In “The Quietest Man” an insecure college professor estranged from his wife feels trepidation when he learns his daughter has written a play that will be performed Off Broadway in New York. He is certain it will reveal his daughter’s perceptions of weaknesses in his nature, in his marriage, in his inability to communicate convincingly with her.
All these stories have a foot in two worlds: the Old World from which parents and grandparents came, and the America to which they came. It is this wide and long perspective that gives Antopol’s stories their heft and depth and that feeling we get of “old eyes.” She seems to have understood and internalized the conflicts and conundrums faced by those tortured or jailed for their dissent in both countries. In “The Unknown Soldier,” an actor who had been jailed for his Communist Party affiliation in Hollywood during the McCarthy era is shown to have been guilty only of inattention and shallowness rather than affiliation. His son is not as hard on him as he is on himself.
It is difficult to choose a favorite from among these stellar stories, but if forced to pick one I suppose it would be the last, “Retrospective,” which twists our emotions this way and that and ends with a surprise that feels like dread. No matter how kind Antopol is to her characters (who look remarkably familiar in situations we have met before), she does not always give us a painless ending. “Beware,” the epigraph should read, “There is truth here.”
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