January 2010

The heart of the matter

By Amy Bloom
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Amy Bloom has what I might have thought were magical powers if I hadn’t learned that she’s spent time as a psychotherapist. She can jump from one character’s perspective to another’s in the space of a paragraph, fully inhabiting each, as smoothly and unmistakably as if she were doing impressions of famous people onstage. In two lines she can telegraph the essence of a character’s personality, the sum of his years, the battles he’s won and lost and the ones that still rage. And she seems to be able to do this for anyone: the gout-ridden aging Englishman, the mixed-race teenage girl, the gay neighbor, the adulterous earth mother. The stories she tells in her new collection, Where the God of Love Hangs Out, vary widely, but she never overreaches or missteps.

That might be because Bloom has one primary concern, and that is the way people act toward and react to one another. Her stories have an almost theatrical quality: she puts several people with complex relationships in a room and lets them have it out—sometimes in dialogue, but mostly through those perfectly tuned inner voices.

Most of the stories are linked, centering on two couples: Clare and William, old friends whose spouses are also friends but who begin a love affair; and Lionel and Julia, a stepson and stepmother who share a secret that eats away at both of them. Some of the Lionel and Julia stories were included in Bloom’s previous collections, but reading them all at once enriches the experience of each; the whole is so much more than the sum of its parts that the book actually feels as weighty as a couple of novels. If there’s a weak spot, it’s “By-and-By,” narrated by a girl whose roommate has been murdered by a serial killer; here the narrative focuses on external details rather than penetrating the psyches of everyone involved. But otherwise, each character’s reaction in every story rings true, because Bloom has taken you deep inside their heads. Maybe she does have magic powers, after all.

Becky Ohlsen writes from Portland, Oregon.

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