Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge

by Peter Orner

reviewed by Mia Lipman

Short stories–the rite of passage for every MFA student, the inevitable debut collection–turn from bonbons to weapons in the expert hands of Grace Paley, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, and their ilk. These authors are not failed novelists whose ideas are too narrow for a magnum opus; they’re the grand wizards of a completely different art form, and Ms. Munro has a freshly minted Nobel Prize to prove it. Now joining their ranks is Peter Orner, whose second book of stories reveals a level of precision and craft that makes me hope, despite his two very fine novels, that he keeps writing short forever.

Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge lightly knots together 51 pieces ranging in scope from a single moment to a series of them, each as fully realized as a bullet. Reciting plot points won’t reveal much: Herb and Rosalie Swanson tell the same story over and over again at parties; Allie goes swimming with a bevy of boys; Walt Kaplan listens to his daughter thump up and down the stairs. Orner’s gift lies in stripping all of these people bare through their minutia. Suspension of disbelief is not an issue here: These are people, never inventions, and you’re gently peering through the window as they do their broken, beautiful human thing.

The experience is raw and familiar and so well orchestrated, it doesn’t really matter where you dip in. But if you do read Last Car cover to cover all at once–and you probably will, because putting this book down would be like hanging up the phone mid-conversation–then you’ll get the added pleasure of recognizing a few old friends when they stop by for a second or third visit.

You wouldn’t think someone could haunt you with a life that spans just a few lines, but Peter Orner can. He can tell you an entire ghost story, and you won’t stop believing it until the next welcome specter chases it away.

Little, Brown and Company, August 2013

ISBN-10: 0316224642

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Mia Lipman is the former reviews editor of San Francisco magazine, founding executive editor of Canteen magazine, and the host of LitFix, a quarterly reading and music series in Seattle.

The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud

The Woman UpstairsThe Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud

Reviewed by Mia Lipman 

In her dark and deft fourth novel, the much lauded Claire Messud pulls no punches with the voice of Nora Eldridge, a beloved schoolteacher wound up explosively tight. “How angry am I? You don’t want to know,” she notes by way of introduction, and it’s fair to say things go downhill from there—but Messud’s vivid writing woos us into keeping this bitter pill of a lady company. (The author came by her PEN/Faulkner Award and Booker Prize nominations honestly.)

Having played the “straitlaced” good girl for all of her fortysomething years, Nora anchors her ferocity just beneath the surface, and it takes a family of three to unleash it: the Shahids, whose luminous young son, Reza, “a canonical boy,” captures Nora’s imagination when he enters her third-grade classroom. Reza’s foreignness and poor English charm his teacher, but the other students peg him as a target, and a playground scuffle connects Nora with his mother, Sirena. The two women share an interest in art—Sirena’s professional and thriving, Nora’s amateur and unfulfilled—and soon they also share a studio that becomes Nora’s refuge from everything she resents: failed relationships, dead mother and hypochondriac father, no art degree, no children. Sirena’s academic husband, Skandar, welcomes his wife’s new friend and his son’s “institutrice” with polite intimacy, and the Shahids quickly absorb Nora into their worldly, accomplished family.

But on Messud’s watch, it’s never as easy as all that. Familiarity can breed obsession, and Nora finds herself teetering on the hairline crack between trust and distrust as she digs deeper into her new relationships. Messud is comfortable in claustrophobic spaces, and it’s hard not to follow her into them, flinching, even when we ought to know better.

This sharp, empathetic portrait of a broken woman demands a second glance, then a third, then an entire afternoon. The payoff will leave you reeling.

Knopf, April 2013

ISBN-10: 0307596907

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Mia LipmanMia Lipman is the former reviews editor of San Francisco magazine, a founding editor of Canteen magazine, and the host of Lit Fix, a quarterly reading and music series in Seattle.