Seattle author Valerie Trueblood’s new story collection, “Criminals: Love Stories,” focuses on what happens when inexplicable attractions and romantic impulses have their way. Trueblood reads Tuesday, Jan. 26, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
“Criminals: Love Stories”
by Valerie Trueblood
Counterpoint, 256 pp., $15.95
Valerie Trueblood’s third collection, “Criminals: Love Stories,” lives up its billing. If the course of love never runs smooth, per Shakespeare’s reading, Seattle author Trueblood’s take on the same topic features speed bumps so large that they can take out your transmission.
It’s not that all the stories here deal with the romantic impulse — love has many guises — but she’s at her best trying to explain our most inexplicable attractions, inviting yet another allusion to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”: “Shall we their fond pageant see?/ What fools these mortals be.”
Consider “Skylab,” one of Trueblood’s gems. The sky is literally falling here. The year is 1979, and the United States’ first space station is expected to re-enter the atmosphere somewhere around the Indian Ocean. So the expats in Malaysia are setting up chairs to watch. Among them are Amy, a nurse, and her husband John, a doctor.
Valerie Trueblood and Ann Pancake
The author of “Criminals” will appear with Seattle author Ann Pancake, author of “Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley,” in a joint reading. 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 26, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co. Free (206-624-6600; elliottbaybook.com).
Figuratively, the sky is falling, as well. As Amy notes early on, while both of them are in Southeast Asia to treat the underserved, neither seem that inspired by the work or the setting.
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They don’t intend to follow the usual practice of hiring an amah to do their housework. They couldn’t share their home, Amy reasons, much less their life, “which was too frail and groggy after the labor and shame of all that had tumbled them down here.” Well! Do tell!
It’s a story their colleagues have surely heard by now, of how the two blew up their respective households in favor of a May-December union that necessitated their move thousands of miles from the crime (as Trueblood’s title would have it).
“It’s not so bad, really, if you think of it as King Lear marrying Juliet,” one of Amy’s brothers quipped before she left.
But no one else, least of all Amy, is laughing. Her memory is filled with thoughts of John’s troubled son and how her own chance for motherhood had been swept away. Now her husband is having heart problems. It appears that guilt and self-doubt have gone the distance.
Trueblood is not judging, really. Rather, she comes to her task with the eye of a mature observer and a storyteller who, in the longer treatments, is at the top of her form.
Her aim is deliberately indirect, not unlike that of Alice Munro. This circuitous path is a necessity when talking about something as slippery as love. It’s like a disease that only be inferred from the reactions it causes.
So you have the tale about a young woman who works in a retirement home (“Kisses”), which morphs into one about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The suspicious tenant in “Aiken” spotlights indifferent offspring. A fascination with a new family in the neighborhood ricochets back to the narrator in “Bride of the Black Duck.”
This last is the first in the collection, a fitting start to a book about our attachments to each other. The woman telling the story is a new widow, and the black duck in the pond at the bus stop is a male who is mourning the loss of his mate.
The duck could be just an aside, juxtaposed against the more fascinating twists and turns in the volatile household nearby.
Instead, it takes you back to the woman who’s telling the story. Sometimes, love is best defined by its absence.