Calamity and Other Stories


Twelve luminous stories alive with friendship and secrets introduce a remarkable writer. Daphne Kalotay’s characters confront regrets and unrealized hopes in tales tinged with gentle humor. A newly independent woman finds herself in bed with an ex-husband of long ago. A little girl gets a surprising glimpse into adulthood when she catches her mother in a moment of uninhibited pleasure. A thirteen-year-old boy contends with the unwanted attentions of a younger girl. And for two older women, a tie formed in their ...
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Calamity and Other Stories

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Twelve luminous stories alive with friendship and secrets introduce a remarkable writer. Daphne Kalotay’s characters confront regrets and unrealized hopes in tales tinged with gentle humor. A newly independent woman finds herself in bed with an ex-husband of long ago. A little girl gets a surprising glimpse into adulthood when she catches her mother in a moment of uninhibited pleasure. A thirteen-year-old boy contends with the unwanted attentions of a younger girl. And for two older women, a tie formed in their youth sustains them through varied twists of fate. These are dazzling intertwined tales of love, failure, and the comedy of human relationships.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Kalotay's debut story collection centers on contemporary characters, recognizable individuals whose chance encounters with new people or unfamiliar situations provide revealing insights. Many of the stories focus on the young -- adults in their early 20s, teenagers and children -- who are struggling to make connections with others, to come to terms with difficult relationships, or to find a comfortable place in the world.

Several stories in Calamity follow the same character, at different points in his or her life. For example, we read about Rhea as a 10-year-old who unexpectedly witnesses her mother enjoying a surprising moment of sexual pleasure. Later, Rhea reappears as a lonely, single 28-year-old craving a deeper involvement with the electrician who fixes the wiring in her apartment. Later still, we meet Rhea when she is working as a college professor and suffering through a terrifying plane ride with a stranger.

Kalotay's writing is restrained yet nimble, pulling readers into each story without drawing attention to the prose. As a result, her characters are real, sympathetic, and memorable -- the kind of people you'd be delighted to meet. (Spring 2005 Selection)

From the Publisher
"Like short-story collections by Alice Munro and Lorrie Moore . . . Calamity tends to dwell on fraught relationships between the sexes. . . . Lovely [and] comic." —San Francisco Chronicle"Superior fiction. Forget the flashy epiphany, the Kodak moment. Kalotay prefers the glancing accumulation of detail, which pays off to impressive effect." —Los Angeles Times"Kalotay's collection builds force so quietly that when all the characters appear together in the final story you're stunned—by how well it works and by how familiar these women now feel." —The New York Times Book Review"Contemplative, melancholy, yet not without humor, these are well-made fictions on a delicate scale that subtly demonstrate such truths as the persistence of character and the endurance of friendship." —The Boston Globe"These stories, simply told and insightful, make for entertaining reading.” —The Sunday Oklahoman“Daphne Kalotay pursues the ongoing arc of her characters’ lives in subtle, languid, sometimes oblique ways.” The Improper Bostonian“Kalotay’s stories offer an intimate glimpse at . . . the absurdities and delights of an ordinary life.” —The Virginian-Pilot"[A] delicately graceful debut. . . . Capturing her characters at different stages in their lives, Kalotay artfully crafts her book around their metamorphoses, both big and small." —Publishers Weekly"Compassion is at the heart of Kalotay's polished stories, as are a subtle sense of humor and appreciation for the complexities of human emotion." —Booklist
Publishers Weekly
Kalotay's delicately graceful debut offers what many story collections do not: the chance to discover what becomes of its many characters. While some never resurface, like the heartbreaking Sergei, a Russian immigrant permanently scarred by a past mugging in "Sunshine Cleaners," or Cole Curtin, the down-and-out piano teacher hopelessly in love with his young students' mothers in "Serenade," others reappear throughout Kalotay's 12 interconnected tales. Geoff, a 13-year-old boy struggling with puberty, his parents' divorce and his mother's consequent depression in "All Life's Grandeur," is later found hungover in the backseat of a stranger's car, obsessing over love and bracing himself for his childhood best friend's marriage. Annie, a young and confident divorcee in "A Brand New You," attends the same wedding, now an eccentric, insightful old woman. Capturing her characters at different stages in their lives, Kalotay artfully crafts her book around their metamorphoses, both big and small. Her greatest achievements are "The Man from Allston Electric" and the title story, in which Rhea, the true star of the book, finds fleeting sanctuary with a repairman and divulges her deepest secret to a complete stranger. Contrary to the high-drama intensity suggested by the collection's title, each of Kalotay's stories is unwaveringly sparse and deceptively simple, focusing on the power of the ordinary rather than the energy of action. Agent, Leigh Feldman. (On sale Jan. 18) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
There are two kinds of short stories: one, the moment-frozen-in-time dissection of a particular event; and two, the all-encompassing storytelling of a writer like Alice Munro, which is in essence a kind of abbreviated novel--a full-length narrative boiled down to its essential details, but which still tells an entire story. Kalotay's stories are of the latter variety. Her characters are explored in full, their landscapes lively and almost tangible in their realism, their plots touching on not just the present but also the past of the story's world, like feature-length films in their intricacy. The stories in this collection deal with such subjects as summer cottage life, high school prom, an immigrant's loneliness, weddings, and the life of divorcTes, among others. But Kalotay manages a fresh angle in her treatment of each of those subjects; her characters are so fully rendered, so real that the plots of her story become vistas upon which the author's creation are placed, often resulting in fascinating consequences. Kalotay's writing is lithe, her dialogue light yet believable, and her characters delightfully comprehensible and identifiable as people we know. Kalotay's stories are ponderous (in a good way) and superbly told. This collection is best suited for patient readers who like to take in each word, who wonder how writers like Kalotay pull on their emotions so. KLIATT Codes: SA--Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2005, Random House, Anchor, 193p., $12.95.. Ages 15 to adult.
—Sam Solomon
Kirkus Reviews
Best friends grow into young womanhood, in a debut collection of a dozen interlocking tales. We meet willful, dark-haired Rhea and cheerful, blonde Callie as ten-year-old girls living in an affluent Boston suburb, where they witness a moment of grown-up intimacy between their mothers at a summer party ("Serenade"). Next comes the trite "A Brand New You," in which newly thin and happy 40-year-old grad student Annie flaunts her liberation by seducing her ex-husband. A much stronger piece, "All Life's Grandeur," shows protagonist Geoff enduring puberty and his father's sexy new wife while his mother "recovers" at her parents' house. "Prom Season" serves merely to introduce Geoff's best friend Mack, an indolent, attractive boy who must be prodded into asking his date to the prom. A recent Russian immigrant uses petty meanness as a flirtation device in "Sunshine Cleaners," the only story that does not obviously feature a previous character, and one of the best in the collection. Rhea, now a grad student in her late 20s and newly dumped by fiance Gregory, returns to flirt with a workingman in "The Man from Allston Electric" and with an Italian aristocrat in "Difficult Thoughts," which includes an inexcusable cameo by the ghost of a dead mother. In "Anniversary," Mack's mother Eileen confesses to best friend Annie that she wishes her son, engaged to Callie, would marry Rhea instead. No such luck. Geoff, whose unraveled relationship is chronicled in "Snapshots," is urged by a happily married man to find a woman in "Rehearsal Dinner." Meanwhile, Rhea has a near-death experience en route to the wedding in "Calamity" and confesses the truth about her relationship with Mack. Which makes her a drunkenspectacle in the final story, "Wedding at Rockport," where Mack marries Callie, Eileen pines for Rhea, and Geoff falls in love. Unsatisfying as a proto-novel and wildly uneven as stand-alone stories. Agent: Leigh Feldman/Darhansoff, Verrill, Feldman
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400078486
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/9/2006
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 1,348,159
  • Product dimensions: 5.24 (w) x 7.92 (h) x 0.59 (d)

Meet the Author

Daphne Kalotay
Born and raised in New Jersey, Daphne Kalotay is a graduate of Vassar College and of Boston University, where she received an MA in creative writing and a Ph.D. in literature. Her short stories have appeared in various literary journals and magazines, and she has taught literature and writing at Middlebury College and Boston University. She lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.
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Read an Excerpt


My mother believed that her entire life would have somehow been different had she been given piano lessons as a girl. She said this often, with a little sigh that made me feel I had better run through my scales one more time. She had grown up, as she often reminded me, "a sculptor's daughter," which I later learned to translate into "poor." I did not take the piano in our family room for granted. My parents found it at a garage sale, a big brown upright with the face of Ray Charles painted on the frontpiece. I always approached it reverently, with the impression that my piano lessons were going to somehow transform me.

In outright mimicry of my neighbor, Callie, I'd demanded that my piano instructor be Cole Curtin. He would appear at our doorstep chewing his thumbnail, invariably late, sheet music stuffed into a paper bag. Entering our house, he strained his neck to glimpse my mother chopping vegetables in the kitchen. In demonstrating a technique or correcting an error, he could play a ten-minute cadenza and then look surprised to find me sitting there beside him. After I'd struggled through my scales, his only reaction might be to say, "Your mother is extremely beautiful."

According to Callie, Mr. Curtin treated her mother no differently. Neither Callie nor I questioned such behavior. We were best friends, both of us ten years old, with a little brother each that we didn't much like. We lived next door to each other and owned identical yellow jumpers. It seemed appropriate that we have the same piano teacher, and that he be in love with both of our mothers.

My father might never have made the fuss about Mr. Curtin had he not been home from the office early one Thursday. In my worldview, fathers were either "at the office" or "on the porch." When mine came home, winter or summer, he retreated to the little screened-in space that nosed into our backyard. There he had installed a large rocking chair (it had been in the family, Russ and I were often reminded, for over one hundred years) next to a table full of wood for whittling. My mother explained this to us as "Daddy's downtime." Winters he would bundle up in a scarf and hat, wrap a wool blanket around himself, and nap there for an hour or so before creating some small object out of a piece of cedar.

Now it was July, and my father was home earlier than usual, whittling away on the porch. Peeking through the living room window, I saw Mr. Curtin approaching our front door, stopping at one of the planters to have a look at some petals or bugs. He was a soft-shouldered man, with thick dark brown hair, bushy eyebrows, and a droop to his eyes. Even though it was summer he wore the same fading corduroy pants as in winter, only now with five-and-dime flip-flops. His button-down shirt was tight on his shoulders, as if it had been purchased ten or so years earlier, before his body completed puberty's cycle. He was still young! Callie and I didn't know this. Mr. Curtin's tired eyes suggested a long, difficult past. His mumbled comments implied a history of lost opportunity and poor decisions: Women gone off with other men. Jobs lost unaccountably. Sheet music lent to students and never seen again.

He bore the slouch of someone perpetually waiting for a tow truck. And despite his thick build, he looked as though he needed to be fed; his skin was pale, and there was a neediness in the way he lingered by the kitchen door as I urged him into the family room.

"Hello, Melena," he said softly to my mother. She looked up from her cooking, and a shiny loop of dark hair swung across her face. "How are you, Cole?"

"Oh, you know," he said. "Things happen. I got fired from the ballet school." Days Mr. Curtin played accompaniment for dance classes.

"Why?" This was me.

"The teacher said I made her feel uncomfortable."

"I'm sorry to hear that," my mother said.

I asked, "Why? Why did you make her feel uncomfortable?"
"Quiet, Rhea. Don't be nosy."

"She said I kept looking at her. How could I not? She's there in those pink tights." Mr. Curtin sighed. "She has such a beautiful neck."

That was when my father came in and said, "Cole," with a little nod of his head, the way he did with everyone except children. "How's Rhea's progress?"

Mr. Curtin sighed again and said, "I suppose we'd better get started." We went to the family room, where the piano sat squarely against a clean white wall. Mr. Curtin listened to my scales and my études, and then I moved on to my pride and joy—real sheet music by a real composer. Other kids were playing "Four Jazzy Fingers and a Swingin' Thumb," but Mr. Curtin had given me and Callie the real thing--simple, elegant children's pieces by Bartók.

"Oh--ugh! Stop! You're murdering it!" he yelled when my fingers hammered at the keys. "It's a sin!" Then he mumbled something about how he didn't actually believe in sin, and after that he demonstrated how to play with appropriate sensitivity. His eyes closed and his head bowed, and beautiful music wafted into the kitchen, where my mother was sliding a casserole into the oven.

"You need to work on refinement, subtlety," Mr. Curtin told me. I didn't know what either of those words meant. "Here," he said. "Here's a beautiful little one, soft and sensual. Play this for your mother in the evening, when she's tired and wants to rest her eyes."

Leaving that night, he said, "Melena, your cooking smells wonderful," in a way that made me think he wanted to stay for dinner. But the invitation he elicited was for the coming weekend.

"We're having people on Saturday," my mother said. "A sort of garden party. If you'd like to come."
"Yes," said Mr. Curtin.

"Starting five or so," my mother told him as she let him out the door. "See you then."

My father had left the porch to sit down at the dinner table. "I wish you hadn't done that," he said softly. "I wish you hadn't invited the piano teacher to our party."

"Why shouldn't I?" my mother asked, sounding truly surprised. "Rhea and Callie just love him, and I think it will be a treat for Cole, too. He doesn't have much money, Gordon. I'm not sure he eats."

"Melena, you know that Jerry Waslick is coming."

"What does your boss have to do with it?"
"I—maybe you don't think this way—" My father's voice sounded embarrassed. "You know I'm keeping my fingers crossed about the promotion. I'd like to be able to make a favorable impression on Saturday. I'm just not sure it's appropriate to invite a piano teacher who sleeps in his clothes and ogles girls in tights--"

"Not girls in tights," my mother said. "The teacher. She has a lovely neck." She laughed briefly. "He's perfectly cultured, Gordon. Why, he's more cultured than the both of us put together."

That was the last I heard of Mr. Curtin until the day of the party. "I'm wondering if we shouldn't look into a new piano teacher," my father said that morning as he frowned over a crossword. "Did you hear the language he used with Rhea the other night? 'Sensual.' Is that an appropriate word for a ten-year-old girl? No. Not for most people, if you get right down to it."

I was in the backyard tossing a ball with Russ, and so I had a fine view of both the porch and the kitchen window. "Most people don't have the intellectual side that we do—" I heard my mother say.

"Melena, please," my father said, sounding bored.

"Well, maybe you don't," said my mother coldly, "but I am the daughter of a sculptor. I know an artist when I see one, and I think that you greatly underestimate the value of a person like Cole."

"I have no doubt that he's as worthy as the next guy," my father said, squinting at the crossword. "It's that he's so . . . he's just a . . ." My father pulled a pencil from behind his ear and counted a line of crossword boxes. "Embarrassment," he declared.

The weather that evening was warm and breezy, and Callie and I had a good time running from the front lawn to the back in our matching jumpers, waiting for the first guest to arrive. But the first guests were Callie's parents, Tom and Helen. I was allowed to call them Tom and Helen because that was what Callie called them. Helen was blonde like Callie and winked whenever she was about to say something funny. She seemed always to be buying Callie Shetland sweaters and pink corduroy skirts and tiny pearl studs that I coveted almost painfully.

Tom, who was fifteen years older than Helen, often gave me and Callie Bazooka bubble gum. This had prompted me to say to my mother one day, "Tom is so, so, so nice." My mother gave a reply that for years mystified me.

"Too nice," she said in a grave tone, with a chastising shake of her head. "Tom is too, too, too nice."
He and Helen showed up with spare martini shakers and a big punch bowl that Helen claimed had been in a box since 1966. "It was one of those impractical wedding gifts," she said. "As if now that you're married you're going to drink punch."

"We probably thought it was terrific at the time," Tom said.

Helen said, "Dear, I doubt that whoever gave it to us is in hearing range. Admit it, you hate punch." And then she tossed back her head and yelled, "TOM HATES PUNCH!"

My mother giggled, and my father said, "In that case, how about some other drink. What can I get you?" Russ and Brian had already gone off dueling with their light sabers. Callie and I ran to the front yard to chant, "Tom hates punch!" as the guests began to arrive.

"Nice place you have here, Gordon," Jerry Waslick told my father. Both of them were wearing short-sleeved button-down shirts and leather boat shoes.

"Yeah, well, we've been thinking about building a pool," my father replied, though in fact this discussion had been dropped the previous summer. Too much maintenance, my father had insisted. But now he said, "We're still looking for the right people to do it."

Jerry Waslick began to tell my father all he knew about pools, while the two of them paced the backyard with their hands in their chinos. Remembering this now, it seems perfect that at just that moment, with my father listening to advice he never meant to implement, Mr. Curtin emerged from the quince bushes beside him. There was a trace of pollen on his pant cuffs, and he carried the same wrinkled paper bag he always used to transport sheet music. "I went to Callie's house by mistake," he explained as I ran up to him.

"Cole," my father said to him, with a nod and a frown.

Mr. Curtin, flustered, mumbled, "I came through the backyard." He looked around at the people on the lawn, and his gaze ended next to him, on Jerry Waslick, who whipped his right hand out of his pant pocket, offered it to Mr. Curtin, and said, "Jerry Waslick," in a way that indicated at once where my father had learned to nod his head.

"I'm Cole."

"Pleased to meet you," said Jerry Waslick.

"You are?"

Jerry Waslick seemed to think that this was the wittiest thing he had heard in a long time. While he laughed, my father said, "Here, why don't I get both of you a drink."

Helen had seen Mr. Curtin now and came over, saying, "Cole, how are you?"

"Fine. Well, no. Not really. Theo ran away." Theo was Mr. Curtin's Dalmatian, who seemed to always be in some sort of trouble. He had swallowed Mr. Curtin's one good pen, and broken the screen door. The last I'd heard, Theo had developed a fear of dust.

"I'm so sorry," Helen said. "When did it happen?"

"Two nights ago. I came home and he was all riled up, and when I went through the front door he ran out, completely upset." Mr. Curtin hung his head for a moment. "I hadn't cleaned in a while, and I can't help but wonder . . ."

Jerry Waslick, who could not be blamed for thinking that Theo was human, appeared fascinated by the conversation. But my father led him away, saying, "Let me show you that sander I was telling you about."

Mr. Curtin shrugged his shoulders.

"I'd say you could use a drink," said Helen, who had already had a number of them herself. "Let me fix you something. Callie, I told you to stop eating all the pimentos."

"It's not pimento. It's red pepper." Not that it would have mattered. Callie had no qualms when it came to breaking rules, which was why it was always more fun to play at her house than at mine.

At this point old Millie Day, who had been invited only because she lived right across the street, saw us and said, "Todd? Are you Robert Fenwick's son? My, how you've grown!" But before Mr. Curtin could correct her, she shuffled off, saying, "I must tell Edna."

I remember the waning sun that evening, because it seemed to take forever to set. It gently stretched our guests' shadows across the lawn and turned orange in a showy way. With their hair lit from behind, everyone looked quite pleased with themselves. Callie and I ran around stealing cocktail cherries and olives and every once in a while listening in on a conversation.

"I don't know how I ended up here," I heard my mother saying to someone on the patio. She must have been drunk, because she had taken off her shoes; my mother usually complained of having to hide her long, callused toes. "I should be in a city," she said now, barefoot on a wooden bench, her hair curling in the humidity. "Or the country or something. I miss the company of artists." She took a sip of white wine and said, "You know, I was a sculptor's daughter."

I sat down on a stool nearby and nibbled celery. The woman to whom my mother was speaking was, it turned out, Edna LeBlanc, Millie Day's widowed elder sister. She lived with Millie and now appeared to be dozing. This did not faze my mother, who added, "But the school system's good. It's for the children, really. I want all the best for them. Cole! Well, now, when did you get here?"

"Oh, I don't know." Reaching into the wrinkled bag he still carried, Mr. Curtin took out two record albums. "I thought I'd bring some party music," he said, handing the records to my mother.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Table of Contents

Serenade 1
A brand new you 15
All life's grandeur 27
Prom season 45
Sunshine cleaners 62
The man from Allston Electric 81
Anniversary 98
Snapshots 115
Difficult thoughts 133
Rehearsal dinner 149
Calamity 159
Wedding at Rockport 175
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