From the Publisher
“[A] sly and emotionally complex debut collection…[Black’s] unflinching candor allows her to mine extraordinary revelations.” –Boston Globe
“Alethea Black's characters are witty […] without turning caustic, and remain mostly cheerful about their uncertain futures—just the kind of people with whom we want to connect.” — Corrie Pikul, Oprah.com
“This debut reads like a dream, with nary a false note…a well-balanced collection filled with low-key charm and notable talent.” – Kirkus Reviews
“A sense of vulnerable restlessness is betrayed by the otherwise pragmatic characters of Black’s strong debut collection.” – Publishers Weekly
“I Knew You’d Be Lovely is an impressive offering, from a strong new voice, of stories about life’s desperation.” – Joseph Arellano, New York Journal of Books
“Alethea Black is downright brilliant at capturing the restless striving for a self that we all are feeling in this parlous and unsettling age. I Knew You’d Be Lovely is a splendidly resonant debut by an important young writer.” – Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize winning author of A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain
“ With humor, honesty and wary hope, Alethea Black’s stories capture the pain and power of loving fully—and celebrate life’s small astonishments amid our shared human search for the divine. I KNEW YOU’D BE LOVELY is thoughtful, entertaining and, ultimately, powerful.” – Daphne Kalotay, author of Russian Winter
"When I came to the end I wanted to read the next page - or write it, but then I realized that there was no more to be said; as in the Navajo prayer, 'In beauty it is finished.'"--N. Scott Momaday, Pulitzer Prize winning author of House Made of Dawn
“Alethea Black writes with a deceptively light touch, yet her work packs a serious punch...There’s a spiritual hunger in her stories reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor, combined with a voice that is all her own.” – Sharon Pomerantz, author of Rich Boy
“Reading Alethea Black’s seemingly effortless prose is like slipping into water – the eerily clear kind, that shows you more than you may want to see.” – Glen Hirshberg, winner of the 2008 Shirley Jackson Award
“Alethea Black can drop you into a dream with a single sentence, then convince you it’s real. Her characters’ best hopes and worst fears usually come to pass, often in fabulous ways, but their adventures feel inevitable and true—not only because Ms. Black richly imagines her people, but because she loves them. I Knew You’d Be Lovely is a lovely debut, with masterful prose and inspired invention on every page.”
—Ralph Lombreglia, author of Men Under Water
"There's a touch of Lorrie Moore in Alethea Black's stories, but the voice is all her own. Black writes about love, yes, but she also writes about solitude--its travails and its pleasures--with a winning combination of insight and charm. I Knew You'd Be Lovely is a terrific debut." – Joshua Henkin, author of Matrimony
“Black’s is a rich, accomplished and startlingly good literary presence…the 13 stories collected here are well-crafted and engaging. Black’s observations on life, love and the human condition are keen and welcome.” –Monica Stark, januarymagazine.blogspot.com
“The title of Black’s collection reflects the optimism buoying these 13 stories…[Black’s] nimble wit carries her through.” – Vikas Turakhia, Cleveland Plain Dealer
In her debut story collection, Black shows a commitment to character and situation, the basic elements of fiction crystallized in short form that make this genre so appealing to so many. In the opening story, "That of Which We Cannot Speak," a socially awkward, recently divorced Brit on his own in Manhattan meets a woman at a party who wears a clipboard announcing that she has laryngitis and enumerating her responses in block print to the usual range of party questions: "SAMANTHA/YES/NO/NOT SINCE 1979/KIKI AND I WENT TO GRADE SCHOOL TOGETHER/THAT'S WONDERFUL!/THAT'S HORRIBLE!/I KNOW JUST WHAT YOU MEAN." Of course, the two—one deeply distrustful of the spoken word and the other literally without a voice—manage to communicate quite well and with a surprising depth, in much the same way that the constraints of a sonnet can lead to clear utterance of a long-hidden emotional truth. VERDICT The movement toward truth and connection among lovers lost and found may be common ground in the contemporary short story, but Black's stories are in no way common. Readers who once waited impatiently for each new volume, say, by Alice Adams, will be grateful for a writer who offers similar satisfaction.—Sue Russell, Bryn Mawr, PA
Characters struggle to overcome their fears and fulfill their desires in a cautiously upbeat set of stories.
"Nothing ventured, nothing gained" could be the unofficial motto of the sensitive young adults who inhabit Black's recognizable world. But often, they must be prodded to act. The opener, "That of Which We Cannot Speak," sets the stage with its depiction of a divorced man trying to connect with an attractive physician at a New Year's Eve party. Her laryngitis makes it impossible for her to speak, so they communicate via a clipboard she keeps around her neck. In the title story, a young woman conquers her jealousy over her boyfriend's friendship with a beautiful writer with a sexy, win-win solution in which everyone gets what they want. "We've Got a Great Future Behind Us" introduces us to an estranged pair of well-known musicians who manage to come together one more time to write a good song about their train wreck of a marriage, and the suburban dad of "The Only Way Out Is Through" turns a family crisis, during a disastrous camping trip, into a last-ditch opportunity to bond with his troubled son. The toll of not taking action is tallied as well, when Elizabeth, the elder sister in "The Summer Before," comes back to her family's summer home after a years-long absence only to realize the ways in which she has not recovered from her parents' divorce. And in the mournful final episode, an aunt must face her own ambivalence toward commitment when her newly widowed sister asks her to sign on as emergency guardian for her young children. Although it could benefit from a bit more warmth toward its protagonists, this debut reads like a dream, with nary a false note.
Well-balanced collection filled with low-key charm and notable talent.
Read an Excerpt
THAT OF WHICH WE CANNOT SPEAK
Earlier that evening, under the pale streetlamps, Bradley had sat on a park bench and watched a row of trees carefully gathering snow. It was as if they were beckoning it, as though the snow were something they’d been wanting to say.
Now, speeding down Fifth Avenue in a cab whose driver seemed unaware of his own mortality, Bradley wished he were back on that park bench. Or in the diner they’d just passed. Or that police station. Anywhere but on his way to a party where strangers with cardboard hats and noisemakers always made him feel as if he were on the wrong planet.
It was 10:15 New York time, which meant it would already be 3:15 a.m. in Islington. Probably too late to call your ex-wife, even if she was most likely still out somewhere, sequined, laughing, ice making music in her glass. Besides, what would he say? “I’m sorry” was so easy and generic. Gail hated lack of specificity; in fact, this was one of the qualities that had drawn him to her in the first place. Whenever he used to overhear her on the phone with one of her sisters, she was always begging for details. “What were you wearing? What did he order? Did he leave a nice tip?”
Unfortunately, this need for particularity would later work against him. Toward the end, a therapist had pressed him to try to describe what was missing in their marriage. “It’s ineffable,” he’d said, at which point Gail stood up and shouted, “Well why don’t you try effing it!” before she began to cry, softly, into her hands.
A professor once told him: “You must perpetually fight against the inexpressibility of it all,” in a voice so solemn it gave Bradley a chill. But his deepest experiences always left him mute. Mute with appreciation, mute with anger, mute with awe. Consequently, even when he was in a wonderful relationship—a wonderful marriage, in fact—some part of him remained fundamentally alone. Once or twice, when there were still worlds of tenderness between them, he had lain awake after he and Gail made love, and while his wife slept beside him he shed silent, inexplicable tears. If Gail had awakened and discovered him, he wouldn’t have known what to say.
As soon as he slammed the cab door, snowflakes began to speckle his head and coat. One hour, he said to himself, looking at his watch. His sole reason for coming to this party, given by a friend of a friend of a friend, was the affection and respect he held for Oscar. Oscar, whom he often thought of as irrational exuberance incarnate, also happened to be his financial advisor, and had stopped just short of bribery to enlist him. So against his better judgment he’d agreed to make an appearance.
On the eleventh floor, even before the elevator doors opened, he could hear the noise of the party. In the invitation, the music had been described, mystifyingly, as “post-funk sexycore yacht rock.” At the end of a short hallway stood a tall blonde in a red sweater.
“Well, hello!” she said. “Do come in.” Bradley knew that in spite of his bookish exterior he was, generally speaking, easy on the eyes. He followed her into the foyer. She was wearing black velvet pants, the tops of which were covered in bright red fuzz, as if her sweater were molting.
“You can put your coat in the back bedroom,” she said close to his ear, in a party shout-whisper. She gestured, and for as far as the eye could see men and women bedecked in jewels and bow ties were sipping translucent drinks. They all looked to be in their mid- to late thirties. “I’m Evelyn, by the way,” she said, extending her hand. “Kiki’s sister.”
“Oh, you’re English!” she said. Bradley smiled and excused himself. After placing his gift of Champagne on the only unoccupied countertop space, he deposited his overcoat in the bedroom, then began navigating his way back to the living room—Excuse me, so sorry, beg your pardon. In front of a large bay window overlooking the park stood a table blanketed with an array of foods. Each dish had a little calligraphied label: rosemary-rubbed chicken tenders, French ham and aged cheddar biscuits, duck-stuffed ravioli, truffle-kissed mini-pizzas. There was a gigantic chocolate torte in the center, which the host’s uncle—he overheard an enthusiastic guest remark—had made by hand.
He pulled a china plate from the stack and would have begun to help himself but for the brunette standing in his way with her back to him. Not wishing to be rude, he waited for her to move, or turn sideways, or in some way reposition herself. Finally, he tapped her shoulder.
“Trying to decide what looks best?” he said. “It’s all right if you sample them all. I won’t tell.”
The woman smiled and said nothing. Her eyes were smoky brown, and her hair was held back with two tortoiseshell combs. She continued to stand silently for a second before he noticed the clipboard hanging from her neck by a piece of brown packaging string.
I can’t speak, it said at the top of a sheet of paper. I have laryngitis.
“Terribly sorry,” he said. “I didn’t realize.”
The woman took up her clipboard and wrote with a pen tied to the end of the string: No need to apologize. Her handwriting was pretty, rounded and small. Bradley reached for the pen—May I? his raised eyebrows asked—and she let him have the clipboard. The fact that she was writing made him want to write. Monkey see, monkey do.
Shouldn’t you be home drinking tea with honey? he scrawled, his left-handed cursive barely legible.
Please, no more tea, she wrote back. No voice for 9 days. You realize how much tea that is?
9 days? he wrote. Perhaps you should see a doctor! He handed her the pad.
I am a doctor, she said, and he blinked. She resumed writing. What’s your name?
“Bradley,” he said out loud, his voice awkward and unfamiliar to his own ear.
She nodded and turned away. She was wearing a strapless black dress and had a simple mother-of-pearl bracelet clasped about her writing wrist. But by far her most striking feature was her neck—long, bone white, flawless. Who knew what a throat like that might be capable of saying, if only it worked. She turned quickly and caught him staring at her. Taking the clipboard, she flipped to the final page, which was covered with prewritten words and phrases:
NOT SINCE 1979
KIKI AND I WENT TO GRADE SCHOOL TOGETHER
I KNOW JUST WHAT YOU MEAN
CAN’T SAY I EVER HAVE
HUMAN BEINGS ARE SO PREDICTABLE
She pointed to the first word.
“Well, hello there, Samantha,” he said, offering his hand. He indicated the last entry, HUMAN BEINGS ARE SO PREDICTABLE, and gave her a quizzical look.
We say the same things over and over, she wrote.
Love never repeats, Bradley thought, but couldn’t remember where he’d read the phrase, and thought it best not to speak of love. “With so many words to choose from, you’d think we wouldn’t perpetually use the same ones,” he said in her ear, but with the noise of the party all around them, he couldn’t tell if he was speaking inaudibly or assaulting her eardrum. Samantha apparently couldn’t make out what he’d said; she moved closer to his mouth. Her head smelled powdery, like vanilla. Her ear was less than an inch from his lips; he could have kissed it if he’d wanted to. He repeated himself.
She nodded. There used to be far fewer words, in primitive cultures. Past civilizations counted 1, 2, many. She looked up at him. Kind of how I calculate drinks, she wrote.
“I assume you were a hieroglyphics major before you turned premed?” he said, wondering where the drinks were.
Art history. Premed = after college (late bloomer). You?
Studied botany. Now botanist.
As soon as she read this, Samantha stamped her foot, grabbed the pen, and began writing excitedly. She had a lot more enthusiasm than you’d think just from looking at her.
You help me! her clipboard proclaimed. I furniture shopping, comparing diff. types wood. Salesman said pine = lots knots, oak = smoother grain, but couldn’t say why.
“Why?” Bradley said.
Why, she wrote again, and as he read the word, she leaned in to underline it. Why.
“Well, a pine branches in tiers, all the way up, whereas an oak sort of grows and then blooms at the top. A knot is where a branch meets the trunk,” he said. “Like a shoulder,” he added, touching two fingers to her collarbone.
Samantha’s lips parted. You have cast yourself as the bearer of wisdom, she wrote, which made Bradley think: If I’m the bearer of wisdom here, darling, we’re both in a bucket of trouble. “You might think less of me if you knew that earlier today it took all my wit and cunning to open a jar of pickles,” he said, and her svelte torso jostled, but she made no sound.