Miriam Cohen’s Adults and Other Children is a sharp collection of short stories that introduces and follows the lives of four women: Amelia, Yael, Amelia’s little sister Karin, and Sophia. We follow them from childhood through adulthood as they wander through difficult terrain. Sometimes they’re very young, sometimes they’re older and experienced, always they’re trying to keep their heads above water.
In “Naughty”, Amelia has been told (by an imaginary nanny) that her baby sister is a changeling, and the father of the boys next door is a werewolf. Amelia pokes at her little sister’s skin. It’s “…as soft as rose petals.” It’s strange and at times horrifying as Amelia converses with this imaginary and lethal nanny and other witches at a dinner party. “Her eyelashes are thread for their buttons; her teeth are the pearls they twist between their knuckles on the days they are sad.”
Amelia appears next in “Expecting”. This time, she’s purging in a girl’s room sink, signs of an eating disorder that will appear later. While Cohen expertly weaves her four main characters through these stories, it’s not just about them. In this story, a schoolteacher named Ms. Perry conceals her alcoholism from her superiors by claiming her symptoms are morning sickness, prelude to an unplanned pregnancy. She considers her relationship with her student Amelia as they’re both purging in the bathroom:
Cohen’s similes are perfectly attuned to the essence of her characters. Ms. Perry tries to explain her condition, “…her words tumbling over each other like kindergartners on their way to recess.” Later, as the lie becomes something she can’t take back, the pregnancy becomes “… like a pimple: she was aware of it, it worried her, but for now she was going to let it sit.”
In “Care”, the situation becomes more complicated. Amelia is regularly hospitalized for her eating disorder. Karin, Amelia’s younger sister, narrates the story: Karin is regularly having to come to terms with her sister’s emaciated appearance:
Cohen manages a careful balancing act between such stark images and seemingly mundane moments with Yael, the second of the four major characters whom we meet in “Bad Words”. She’s a precocious child of divorce processing her new living situations, a home with Mom and a separate home with Dad. Yael is a thoughtful little girl, perhaps too thoughtful: “She is grateful that her parents are divorcing now, while she is still in second grade…” The next time we see Yael it’s in “A Girl of a Certain Age”. She and her roommate Sophie are obsessed with Law And Order: SVU, and that factors into the news that a woman who worked with her has been murdered.
Yael works at an online magazine for Jewish women, and she thinks about how her favorite TV show seems to portray her people. She does some amateur sleuthing as she tracks down the family of the killer who took her work colleague’s life. He’s Jewish, like her, and it proves confusing:
In “Attachments”, Yael is the maid-of-honor at her best friend Sophie’s wedding. Cohen’s wonderful metaphors come back into play: “Sophie looked as if happiness were…an expensive cream…that had been poured into her.” Yael works at an Infant Attachment Center helping children adjust to contact with strangers. At the same time she’s employed at this Behavioral Clinic for children, she is In a relationship with a new man. Yael adjusts to the possibilities of life as an Orthodox Jewish wife:
In “Guns Are Safer for Children Than Laundry Detergent”, Yael has become a psychiatric clinician, working with obsessive-compulsive clients who harbor murderous thoughts. Again, Cohen tells a potentially hyperbolic story in subtle ways. Yael is unsure about the strength of the relationship she shares with her boyfriend Sam, but they remain together. They carry on a charade about having an imaginary child they name Wendy June. “They’d never do better than her,” Yael concludes. “Wendy June was so much.” It’s in these moments, where characters think about the blessings they have in their lives (real or imagined) that these stories most powerfully resonate.
The third featured woman, Karin, Amelia’s sister, appears first in “Recess Brides”. Here, she’s a child in elementary school. Her classmate Jonah is allergic to sunlight and can only attend school during the winter months. Karin is selected by her teacher to stay inside during recess to be with Jonah, and it’s at that point that the two lonely children make a connection.
Karin is troubled. She taps her chest when she’s nervous or anxious. She imagines a relationship with Jonah, this untouchable boy, and a marriage with no need to contact the outside world: “Being a bride was like buying a fur coat or an evening gown; It made you look beautiful for a little while, and then it made you lock yourself in the bathroom and not come out until morning…”
Karin is a frightened young girl in “Old for Your Age, Tall for Your Height”, thinking about a predator on the hunt for her friends, including a girl named Victoria, while she deals with her sister Amelia’s eating disorder. The fear here is not just about concrete threats from the outside world but also the transformations happening in their adolescent bodies:
Sophia, the final member of our quartet, appears first in “Surrogate” as a graduate student considering carrying a child for her professor. She describes how it feels to be in his class and compares it to running for a train ride: “Sometimes you get there just in time, and other times you missed it and [end] up just waiting…
In “Odd Goods”, Sophia is a victim of sexual harassment in the academic workplace. In the final story, “Fun Day”, she is the youngest of her playgroup and she’s trying to come to terms with the impending loss of her mother:
Adults and Other Children is a calm and measured collection of short stories that carefully announce a new and important voice in American short fiction. Readers can detect deadpan realism influences of Lorrie Moore and the feminism of Angela Carter in these stories, but the work is distinctly and originally Cohen’s voice. The stories may not hammer themselves into the reader with an explosive energy, but their plots and these characters will stay for a while. Make room for them.