Mourning is something we each handle in our own way, as there’s no manual, no recipe for dealing with the aftermath of death. It’s not until we find ourselves in the midst of the mixed ingredients our hearts and mind combine, which often require equal parts heartache and denial paired with some irrational emotion and devastation before we can face the fleshy thing that beats inside of us as broken or irreparable.
Billy Lombardo’s debut, How To Hold A Woman is a novel told in connected stories, linked together by grief, dysfunction, and raw human emotion. The one constant within the nine chapters that chronicle the lives of a suburban family is the lack of syrup-laden drama that keeps the fulcrum of the story ever-present. We are introduced to these fictitious people and their lives in a way that makes you forget you’re reading fiction and rather becoming a voyeur of sorts. The author lets us peer into kitchen conversations, quiet tragedies, and emotional outbursts in each chapter, but everyone remains flawed and no one is viewed through a corrective lense or microscope.
The Taylor family isn’t unlike any other suburban family you might know or even be living next door to. In this collection, we’re lucky enough to witness each hushed whisper, salty tear, and disappointment these characters experience as individuals and as a broken family. We watch each of them on a reactionary roller coaster, plummeting through space and time to the darkest depths of their own mental recesses, acting and reacting to one another in the best and worst of circumstances.
One of Lombardo’s biggest successes with this work is his innate ability to hone in on what makes us imperfect and ultimately human. Over an eight-year period, each character in these stories takes their own journey to find peace with their own realities. In every story, we learn that the people who live on these pages are the fictitious version of you and me and everyone we know. Whatsmore, Lombardo breathes life into each one of them while keeping the emotion real, raw and as simply complex as they’ll allow.
Stories that involve a death often cause the narrator to rely on gory details and chaos that surrounds such tragic events like abduction or murder. Lombardo never attempts to use superfluous drama as a means of attracting the reader. Instead, the stories themselves are what lure the reader in with their raw and uncensored dialogue and delicate interactions with one another. Lombardo works to ensure that conversation between characters is always genuine and never predictable or clichéd. The stories here are less about what was said but rather about the reactions each person has to various situations that continue to divert them from dealing with the very thread that has pulled them apart: Isabel’s death.
Lombardo, for instance, describes the emotional pain and strife only a mother could know in her outward silence and quiet suffering:
I heard the bathroom door slam, but you slammed it so hard that the thing didn’t catch and the door popped open some. Through the sliver of the open door I saw you. Your top was off. You were sitting on the closed seat of the toilet in just your underwear. There were criss-crossed scratches of new blood across your breasts and you were crying. Your head was back and your throat looked like it belonged to someone else, the way it was exposed, and your breasts were bleeding and your eyes were closed and raised to the ceiling and you were crying. Your fingers were raised in helpless claws on your bare legs.
I didn’t hear Dex and Sammy come in the house. They had grown used to the silence, had begun to move in a silence of their own. When I looked up they were right next to me. I shut the door so they wouldn’t see you, but it may have been too late.
Each of these stories, while connected by plot, could stand alone and tell just as powerful a story about love, loss, and relationships as they do as a linked collection of stories. One of the fantastic yet difficult tasks of an author who writes a novel-in-stories is to carefully select what portions of these characters lives the reader will be privy to. Lombardo has hand-selected each nuanced phrase and syllable for us to digest and each of us are full of word soup we’ve been fed and are all the better for it.
What we do when we find ourselves alone with our thoughts, with another woman or man that isn’t our spouse and the fragile feelings that each of us wears so close to the skin are what’s examined in these pages. The psychological war that takes place between Isobel’s parents after her death and their inability to communicate with one another seems inevitable. Because this death is never properly dealt with, rarely mentioned by the narrator throughout most of the novel, nor grieved about openly, they suffer together in silence.
Lombardo reminds us of the humanity each character possesses here, allowing us to watch as these characters uncover psychological scars and emotional pain that is mirrored in their daily interactions with one another. Perhaps what’s most interesting about this collection of linked stories is that Lombardo doesn’t chose to focus on how Isobel dies, nor does he disclose any information about the death until the latter half of the book. We’re told early on that Isobel dies, but the book doesn’t focus on how or why. Towards the end of this novel-in-stories we learn just what became of the girl. One of the fantastic qualities about the way this story is told is how we learn about the loss of Isobel through the other character’s flaws and indiscretions.
These stories invite us in and ask us to stay, all the while subconsciously holding our minds captive. How to Hold a Woman makes bold strides in its portrayal of denial, anger, bitterness, isolation, and redemption. Each sentence is as real as the ones we utter to our own friends and family, to our very own mothers and fathers. The reactions and inactions of the characters here parallel that of real life and human behavior. Lombardo’s biggest success within these pages has been to remain genuine in his prose, structure and dialogue, while being the ultimate observer of those who speak volumes without uttering a word.
This debut work is layered with awkward moments, erotic interludes, remorse, and regret, but somehow it manages to chip away at the mortar and plaque that we let build up around our hearts, exposing it for what it really is and what we really all are, which is nothing short of human.
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