“Lucy Mattsen was nobody – like all the women I worked with – until the day the baby fell out the window.”
With that near-perfect opening sentence, Tracy Winn delivers a collection of short stories that promises more than they deliver. This is not a bad collection, it’s just that the stories are uneven in tone although they – in theory – are joined by being the tales of a group of individuals who lived in a dying mill town in the Northeastern region of the United States. These are stories about people in different walks of life: rich by inheritance and work versus the poor; old bloods versus immigrant arrivals; foppish people of privilege who live in dated but glorious mansions versus the people who live down in the boondocks in the abandoned mills.
What these individuals have in common is that of all the places to live in the world, in this country, they have chosen (or had chosen for them) to live in a place whose time has come and gone. There’s a sense that they are ghosts in the town where one mill operates in the place of the six that once made it a place of prosperity. And even that one remaining mill closes.
It is left to the reader to determine the time frame, the date, of each story. Generally the only clue provided by Winn is a mention of the make and model of an automobile (Chevy Bel Air, Chevette, Dodge Aspen). Other than this, there’s a sense of disorientation that occasionally may remind the reader of Audrey Niffenegger’s (Her Fearful Symmetry) prose.
Winn can write: “He imagined her taking long strides under the sprawling shade trees, past the trim hedges of sunny Fairmont Avenue… the lithe lines of her, the symmetry of her lean face, her pulse beating in the tender skin below her ear. She’d swing her bare arms, the hot sun on her face, her skirt swishing declaratively. She walked the way she thought, in a straight clear path. She sliced through life, clean-edged.”
The issue is that while Winn can build interest in her characters, to this reader they never felt like real persons, true human beings; the stories often have the feel of writing exercises, of something written for an academic assignment. Thus, we never come to feel at one with these individuals; these quasi-ghosts remain just that. (They are not persons we wish to spend much time with.)
The best stories in this group come at the end, as if Winn was beginning to warm up, to find her voice, the closer she came to completing the work. Tracy Winn surely shows her potential here, although the potential is largely unrealized. If you’re currently in the market for a collection of short stories, a preferable choice would be Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy (reviewed on this site on June 21, 2010, “Having It All”). But be warned that Meloy does not open her set with a near-perfect first sentence.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.