After being blown away early last year by Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer-winning A Visit from the Good Squad, I decided on the spot that I’d read every book she’s ever written. It took me a while to get to my second Egan read, but I finally picked up another book by her this year, Emerald City: Stories.
This book features Egan’s some earlier work; some of the eleven stories were written in the late 1980s and 1990s. Most of them feature what I see appears to be a recurring theme in Egan’s work: lost people who appear to be successful yet struggle with discontentment and unfulfilled lives. In this case, the people in the stories either wealthy enough to travel around the world or have jobs that take them to exotic locations around the world. The settings transport readers everywhere, such as the pristine beach resorts of Bora Bora, the sand dunes in the deserts of Africa, the tourist hot spots in China, and the high-fashion photo shoots in Manhattan.
One of my favorite stories in the collection is “One Piece,” about a young girl (the narrator) and her slightly older brother, Brad, who struggle to cope with a tragic event from their childhood: Brad, while playing around in their idling parked car, shifted the gears and fatally injured their mother. Ever since, their father has treated him differently, as if he were a danger to others. Their father eventually remarries, and their new stepmother is even more obvious about her discomfort around him, especially when he’s near her two daughters. Meanwhile, the narrator examines how the accidents and the ensuing years have eaten at Brad. Her desire to alleviate his feelings of guilt is palpable throughout the story.
Something I often admire Egan for is her ability to beautifully describe fleeting moments and all of the weight that can be held within them. In “The Stylist,” she describes one such moment like this:
There is a stillness, the pause of a moment being sealed. Bernadette notices the breeze, the limp water washing her toes. She feels an ache of nostalgia. Jann’s hand presses against her back. Between them all is a fragile weave of threads, a spider’s web. Bernadette longs for this moment as if it had already passed, as if it could have been. Yet here it is.
A couple of the stories in this collection are forgettable, but when Egan is on, she’s brilliant. The little truths she sheds about human nature–and the way she writes them–never fail to amaze me.
Emerald City: Stories was released by Anchor Books, an imprint of Random House, on October 9, 2007.
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