The title of Elizabeth Spencer’s eighth book of short fiction, Starting Over, carries a double meaning: It refers both to the characters in the collection and to the author herself. Ninety-two years old, winner of a PEN/Malamud Award and five O. Henry prizes as well as nine novels, she last released a book, The Southern Women, in 2001.
Spencer, however, has been far from inactive, publishing in literary journals and seeing her best-known work, the 1960 novella The Light in the Piazza, adapted as a Tony Award-winning musical in 2005. Of the nine stories in Starting Over, six date from the last three years. What this suggests is that there is no limit to a writer’s longevity, that — in some cases at least — insight remains, or grows sharper, with age.
For Spencer, that’s a key consideration, since so many of the stories here are timeless domestic dramas that unfold in a recognizable but subtle world. The setting is North Carolina, generally (Spencer lives in Chapel Hill), and the time the present, but it is a present largely stripped of noise and flash (consumerism, the Internet), where the most compelling dynamics unfold between parents and children, husbands and wives.
In “Return Trip”, which opens the collection, Patricia and Boyd, a couple spending the summer in the mountains, are visited both by their child, Mark, and Patricia’s cousin Edward, who resemble each other to a provocative extent. “Let the past go,” Edward urges, but even as Patricia assures herself that “[t]here was no possible way she and Edward could have done anything at all that long-ago night, both drunk as coots,” the past asserts itself each time she looks at her son.
The same is true of Rob Ellis, the protagonist of “The Wedding Visitor”, who returns home for his cousin’s wedding, only to confront the lingering contradictions of blood and place. “His heart was not so much broken,” Spencer writes, “He did not know what that was. What afflicted his heart, like a virus maybe, was yearning. Please, he would whisper to no one sometimes when he was alone, not quite knowing what he meant. He thought it now, then he drank enough to forget it.”
That’s a beautiful passage, eschewing false epiphanies. At its center is a resistance to cliched ideas, such as a heart that is broken, that only distance us from the emotions they are meant to evoke. Spencer’s intention is the opposite, to draw us in so closely that her characters’ lives become our own. We share their experience, not because we see it but because we feel it, described in the most matter-of-fact terms.
“Sightings” begins with a simple declarative: “Mason Everett, a man who lived mostly happily in his own mind, hadn’t any idea why his daughter Tabitha had come to visit him.” The whole story is set up in that sentence — a slightly disconnected father must reckon with his teenage daughter, who has been living with her mother through a custody agreement, choosing to come back to him.
“The Boy in the Tree” works out of the abiding empathy between Wallace Harkins and his aging mother, who lives alone and may or may not be losing her grip. “Sometimes Mrs. Harkins sees a boy sitting halfway up a tree,” Spencer tells us, “among the branches. Who is he? Why is he there? Sometimes he isn’t there.”
It would be an obvious choice for the story that develops to revolve around the diminishment of Mrs. Harkins and the loss felt by her son. But again, Spencer is not interested in such easy moves. The boy, it turns out, is real enough — unlike, perhaps, a similar figure Wallace notices in town.
“Gosh, I do like your mother,” his daughter’s boyfriend enthuses. “She pretends not to be listening, but I bet she hears everything.” Implicit is the tension at the center of the narrative, which deals with perception as much as it does with reality and our assumptions about which characters are sound and which are not.
This is a difficult balance to pull off, and Spencer is not always successful; “Christmas Longings” is too brief to be effective, while “A Rising Tide” wears its multicultural intentions too much on its sleeve. But mostly, she writes with grace and nuance, mapping the murky territory between our obligations and our desires.
Two of the book’s most resonant stories, “On the Hill” and “Blackie”, deal with women responsible for other people’s children: the former for a neighbor boy neglected by his parents, the latter for her three stepsons. There are no simple solutions; both finish open-ended, looking outward to a future that is as inexplicable as the past.
“What’s gone is gone,” says the husband in “On the Hill”. “What’s real remains.” It’s less a cautionary note than an observation, a declaration of purpose, a way of staying sane. “She smiled encouragement,” Spencer writes at the end of “Blackie”, “knowing they had entered a new chapter. She had had, after all, so much practice.” What we are hearing is the voice of experience, a description of how to be a survivor, which is a sensibility these characters and their author share.