Elizabeth McCracken has published three novels and a memoir, but to many readers, short stories are her home ground. The tales in her third collection, The Souvenir Museum, often catch characters out of sorts, having arrived at a strange destination. “All her life she’d felt foreign; landing abroad, she was relieved to assume it as an official diagnosis,” thinks Jenny, a character in “Mistress Mickle All at Sea.” Jenny, who plays a villain in a kids’ TV show, is alone on a ferry to England after visiting her brother. In a lesser writer’s hands, this story might be merely meditative, even dull, but a McCracken story is never boring, and this one offers plenty of surprises.
Four linked stories follow a couple, Sadie and Jack, through their long relationship. In the book’s opening story, “The Irish Wedding,” young Sadie and Jack arrive in Ireland for the wedding of Jack’s older sister to a Dutch man. In this wedding tale, both strange and recognizable, we get a portrait not just of the young couple and all they don’t know about each other, but also of Jack’s quirky, possessive family. In the collection’s final story, Sadie and Jack are finally getting married 20 years later. On their honeymoon in Amsterdam, they simmer and fight, but they remember their love when family tragedy strikes.
A new collection from McCracken is always welcome. Grief, loss and the passage of time run through these stories, but so does humor, both the wry and laugh-out-loud varieties. Comedy lurks in even the smallest, sharpest observations, such as in “Proof,” when an older couple’s comfortable shoes are described as looking “like baked potatoes.”