“Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger”
By Lee Smith
Algonquin, 304 pages, $23.95
Lee Smith. 7:15 p.m. Monday, Decatur Library Auditorium, 215 Sycamore St., 404-370-8450 Ext. 2225, www.georgiacenterforthebook.org/
By Gina Webb
In the midst of her father’s nervous breakdown, Karen remembers a game she played as a little girl called Statues.
In the game, “one person grabs you by the hand and swings you around — and then lets you go, and whatever position you land in, you have to freeze like that until everybody else is thrown. The person who lands in the best position wins. But what I remembered was that scary moment of being flung wildly out into the world screaming, to land however I hit, and I felt like that was happening to us all.”
Karen is just one of the characters searching for a way home in “Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger,” a collection of short stories from Lee Smith. With her trademark Southern charm and wicked humor, Smith draws us into the lives of people she’s about to fling off a cliff without so much as a polite “oops.” It’s all for the best, though. On the way down, they get to know parts of themselves they’ve never met before.
In “Stevie and Mama,” a wife opens her beloved husband’s toolbox to find a secret cache of love letters exchanged in the months following the death of their 2 1/2-year-old daughter.
Mrs. Darcy, in the title story, horrifies her daughters when she trades in her spectator pumps for flip-flops, and abandons her craft projects for visions of a blue-eyed man who emerges from a rainbow.
After discovering her husband’s infidelity, Joline B. Newhouse keeps her chin up by writing a local news column, aptly titled “Between the Lines,” to give “folks something to hang onto, something to keep them going.” She redesigns the news, cheerfully omitting the hard realities — until the day her old rival dies, triggering a flood of memories Joline can no longer edit out.
Wheelchair user Alice Scully in “The Happy Memories Club” lived an average life, was a good wife, boasts seven grandchildren. Told she may not have long to live, she ignores her doctor’s advice. “Instead, I have been listening to this voice too long silent inside me,” she says, scribbling page after page of memories to read aloud at her nursing-home writing class. They aren’t all happy memories, and some scare the bejesus out of the other members, but for Alice, they’re a lifeline.
Darker truths flash like warning lights between the lines of these stories, illuminating the cost of hanging onto a familiarity that offers slim comfort, of clinging to a lukewarm marriage, of losing a child, of a free fall into a new life.
“I mean, you never know what is going to happen in this world, do you?” says Rita in “House Tour.” “For instance, I used to be Miss South Carolina, and now I have a double mastectomy? And my husband left right in the middle of all the chemo and radiation and everything, he just couldn’t take it? But guess what? … The radiologist and I fell in love?”
Even when we risk it all — or at the moment everything we know as real has slipped away — Smith reminds us that getting lost may be the surest route to finding ourselves.