Review of Jessica Treadway's Please Come Back to Me
Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press
216 pages $24.95 (hardcover), $19.95 (paperback)
Reviewed by Tara Menon
About Tara Menon
Tara Menon is a freelance writer based in Lexington, Massachusetts. Her book reviews have appeared in Na'amat Woman, Calyx, India Currents, Parabola, and Hinduism Today. Her poetry has been published in the following publications: Azizah Magazine; Aaduna; Yellow as Turmeric, Fragrant as Cloves; the view from here; and 10x3 plus poetry. Additional poems are forthcoming in Lalitamba, Damazine, and Cartys Poetry Journal. Tara's fiction has been published in the following journals and anthologies: Contemporary Literary Review India; Catamaran; The APA Journal; Elf: Eclectic Literary Forum; Many Mountains Moving; India Currents; The South Carolina Review; Living in America; and Mother of the Groom.
Jessica Treadway's second collection of short stories, Please Come Back to Me, winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award, is not for those who seek fiction as a means of escape, but rather for readers who would welcome an immersion in reality. She packs a lot in her fiction with very little redundancy, giving us protagonists whom we could meet in our everyday lives. Not a single story is narrated in the fashionable first person, but we are privy to the minds of her protagonists. Perhaps it is for this reason that though we empathize with them we may not love them and sometimes watch their fates unfold like interested bystanders rather than active well-wishers.
The collection includes a novella with the eponymous title, Please Come Back to Me. In the story, a young couple, Dorrie and Chris, who have imagined their children on the moon, waiting to be summoned, engage our compassion. At his wife's urging, twenty-six year old Chris goes to a doctor to find out whether the poppy-sized mole on his left arm is cancerous. After he is diagnosed with cancer and undergoes chemotherapy, Dorrie tells him she is expecting. Unlike in the past, when they even gave names to their conjured children, they fear to envision the future. Dorrie wants to ask him to give her a sign after his death that his soul is still around, but she can't manage to communicate her wish. Chris dies, tragically, ten days after his son is born in the same hospital. Dorrie raises the child with her mother's help until her mother dies. The deaths of Chris and his mother-in-law, both from cancer, portray the kind of coincidence that happens all too often in life. The story is tinged with the longing of the widow for her husband, and Treadway imparts a touch of the surrealistic when the dead man saves his son. (Elsewhere in her collection, too, she inserts a bit of surrealism, making the reader marvel at her skill in incorporating it in the midst of so much reality.)
In the first story, "The Nurse and the Black Lagoon," we feel sorry for Irene, whose son Brian has set fire to a playground, and the tension builds up chillingly, horrifyingly against the background of family drama. She had encouraged creativity in her children, taking them to crafts stores to get supplies for projects they did together after dinner. "I am a good mother, Irene could hear in her head as she dropped the items on the counter in front of the cashier." Though Brian had once buried a kitten alive, Treadway does not depict him as a monster, only as the child of ordinary parents, a troubled individual who merely says, "I'm sorry" when his sister confronts him. The writer is generous with details, but she also uses restraint effectively, making the reader wonder what went wrong with Brian.
Treadway, in "Dear Nicole" relies on credible coincidence and the "what if" to carry out her plot. She links her characters' childhood and adult lives creatively, giving us a wonderful image of a pond with skaters, and capturing small town life adroitly, in a manner comparable to Elizabeth Strout's Pulitzer prize-winning depiction in Olive Kitteridge. "Ice glittered on telephone wires. The flickery bulbs suspended above the pond had been replaced by floodlights, which illuminated the whole rink, even the corners, where it used to be you could hide, if you wanted to leave the game for a few minutes to be alone with your heartbeat and the stars. The girls didn't sit on a crate to watch anymore, but stood in a circle, some of them smoking cigarettes with their backs to the boys, all of them talking while the action passed by. They wore their daytime clothes under their coats and jackets, instead of pajamas and gowns. Occasionally they said something to one of the players, or admired a shot with a flirty hood, but it was a tired admiration, and Gerald saw that the girls might just as well have been hanging out at Costa's, laughing over pop and French fries, for all they cared about the game."
"Shirley Wants Her Nickel Back" could have been titled "Every Marriage Has Its Secrets," based on the protagonist's mother's words that reverberate in the daughter's mind in a key scene. It is a story with two car accidents and another that turns into a near miss. Treadway's explorations of her characters' minds are vital to the dramatic action. Norine's husband kills a drunk woman when he is driving. Fortunately for him, he is released on what at first seems to be a technicality. The couple's financial and parental responsibilities add to the tension in the marriage. Norine's resentment toward her husband accelerates to the point where she decides to do something bold and impetuous, which she will regret and try to undo.
One of the most interesting, albeit slightly familiar premises, belongs to the story "Revelation." Treadway elevates the premise and makes it her own in the conclusion. The story features a stalker who sends a woman notes with a sentence from the Book of Revelation in the Bible. "Do not fear what you are about to suffer." This is the shortest tale, less embellished with details, but again, what is withheld adds to the effect.
All the short stories with the exception of Deprivation (though not without virtue) are of equal and meritorious caliber. Treadway makes us wonder what we would do if we had her characters' predicaments, whether we were the mother of the boy who set a playground on fire, or the widow who had to raise her son on her own, or the spouse who married the wrong woman, or the sister with her memory of being sexually abused by her father, or the desperate mother whose baby wouldn't stop crying. She lets us see that it is human nature to at first deny or mitigate one's problems. "He must have lit a match for some reason, and it got out of hand," says Irene to the police officer, knowing that every mother in a similar plight would say the same thing. "It's just a mole," Chris says, blissfully ignorant that melanoma will kill him. Treadway, with two award-winning collections of short stories (her previous one garnered the John C. Zacharis First Book Award), is a master of the genre at a time when novels are flourishing. She makes us realize not just that every marriage has a secret, but that every family has a story.