1.5 out of 5 stars
Cut to the Chase:
On the one hand, Russo is a talented writer (a Pulitzer winner) who has a melodic style that I never regret reading… on the other, I feel fairly strongly that Russo’s far more suited towards long novels than the short story format. (In fact, I think that’s a direct correlation between the length of his work and my enjoyment of it). Though there are interesting characters here (a Belgian nun who’s the titular character of the collection, a photographer who learns more about his wife after she’s dead, and so on), there just isn’t enough depth developed in the characters or plot lines to really move me. As a whole, the collection feels a bit like something that was published to capitalize on his Pulitzer, as opposed to a work that would have stood up on its own.
As always, I’ll give you a few synopses, so you can decide if it’s for you:
“The Whore’s Child” — an aging Belgian nun takes a fiction writing class, and begins to pen what is an obviously true memoir/account of her childhood and origins.
“Monhegan Light” — a sort of unlikeable Hollywood photographer takes a trip with his much, much younger girlfriend and learns some hard truths about his deceased wife (namely, that she cuckolded him for not only years, but decades) while visiting Martha’s Vineyard
“The Farther You Go” — a daughter believes she can imitate the happiness of her parents’ marriage…
“Joyride” — mother and son go on a cross country trip (see title) to try and escape their troubles
“Buoyancy” — about a married couple: though the man (an academic) has always been the caregiver to his wife (she had a nervous breakdown long ago), the story reveals his own helplessness and inadequacies after they accidentally stumble upon a nudist beach
Comparisons to Other Authors:
In general, I would compare Russo’s works to Tobias Wolff (not in the short fiction to short fiction sense, but in the rooted in a town/time/American period way) or maybe Jeffrey Eugenides. Often, he plays with strong though fractious generational ties, which reminds me of Margaret Atwood (and more specifically, something like The Blind Assassin) or Joyce Carol Oates. Like Oates and Atwood, some of his books are looooong, but I think, really, that his stories almost need to be, and here, where he’s writing in short stories, everything feels one-dimensional and underdeveloped.