Other Heartbreaks

By Patricia Henley


Engine Books
October 2011

Reviewed by Jason Cook


It's hard to believe Patricia Henley's stories aren't real, that the characters in Other Heartbreaks aren't out there keeping secrets, struggling to move on.  Not much happens in these stories in the way of plot or traditional narrative arc; instead, the story emerges from the character's lives, the accumulation of many heartbreaks.  If, as Henley says, the writing of short stories is a "humble activity," it's the humility of a family photo album, where each collection of faces means something, sometimes something deep and troubling. 

Case in point: In "Rocky Gap," June Peck is at a family gathering with her brother, her "sweetie" Tanya, her daughter and granddaughter, and an assortment of relatives and almost-kin.  Henley takes the reader through the convoluted relationships between the characters, the kind that normally get in the way of the story.  Here, though, the webs of meaning connecting these people to June, to each other, and to June's sister, Peggy, who drank herself to death are the story.  The heartbreak in "Rocky Gap" isn't just the death of a sibling but also the secrets June kept from the rest of her family, her regret over the times she might have helped but didn't, and the suspicion she has that her relationship with Tanya isn't as mended as it seems.

"Sicilian Kisses" is another standout, the story of a woman who has moved far away from home with her new husband, from an art gallery in Portland to a cabin in the Canadian Wilderness. She suspects she's made a serious mistake, but won't say so (to her husband or herself).  Ground down by the tedium of chores, already out of love with her husband, she does her best to feel content, but always there is the heartbreak of being unable to want what she has and unable to figure out what she does want.  Her only clearly articulated desire in the story is something she can't allow herself, and it means cutting herself off from Lucy, her neighbor and only friend:

Barbara's heart was laid low with honesty… All those afternoons at the lake, all that liquor, addictive truth-telling.  Later she wrapped up in a foam-like motel blanket; she slept on the floor, not trusting herself to lie beside Lucy without saying what was stuck in her throat.

Henley's subtlety gives these stories some of the power of watching a character in a horror movie climb a flight of stairs she really shouldn't.  With delicate touches, usually no more than a phrase or an incongruous line, Henley lets the reader know, long before Barbara, that she is "wild for" her friend in a way she's never been for her husband. The only clues that Barbara eventually leaves this small town are a few comments from her future therapist and a few more describing the intense pressure from her family to make the marriage work.  On its surface, this is the story of a woman rediscovering herself and leaving an unhappy marriage – the stuff of nearly half of the Lifetime movies ever made.  In Patricia Henley's hands, however, the trope becomes new again.

Some of the best friction in these stories comes when the outer world crashes into these inner realities.  The last three stories – a triptych of a family living in an immigrant neighborhood in Chicago – center around Joe and his resistance to leaving the moving the store his father founded.  The area they've lived in all their lives is no longer safe, but Joe, who still drives his father's antique Buick, can't conceive of leaving his memories behind.  "Emma Compartmentalizes in Ireland" follows his wife on a vacation after their son-in-law is shot by a gangbanger; in "Ephemera," the last and best story in the collection, their daughter Sophie desperately looks for a way to reclaim the private life she and her husband shared in the apartment above her parents'.  "She likes to make love with her clothes streaming away, half-unbuttoned, a vixen in a Vargas illustration."  No more; now she can't bear to look at his things or say his name, and the efforts of her loved ones do nothing but make it worse. 

While the stories in Other Heartbreaks all work a similar theme, and feature similar protagonists, none of them feel stale or included for the sake of exploring the idea.  Because each character is unique (itself a feat in a project such as this), with a unique situation, the stories are as different from one another as strangers chosen at random in an airport.  Jenny, in "Red Lily" is petty and conniving, Bonnie in "Kaput" is wise and graced with a kind of weathered gallows humor.  The variety of character and style, displayed best in the "Other Heartbreaks" triptych, allow the stories to comment on one another.  In the opening story, Henley writers: "Some forks in the road no one knows about but the two people involved."  That fork branches out again and again in the book, each path going somewhere different, but always there are secrets kept and a distance between people where it shouldn't be.  Heartbreaks are not just losing a husband to a gangbanger, they're an accumulation of little mistakes, of not being able to let the past go, of realizing you no longer love your spouse, or realizing the relationship you're in is long over.  Life is the heartbreak.