The News from Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story [NOOK Book]


“Joan Wickersham’s brilliant The News From Spain shows, in all its twisty beauty, what a short story collection can do. The stories are gorgeous in themselves, but the way they speak to each other is truly extraordinary.”—Elizabeth McCracken, author of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination

From the author of the acclaimed memoir The Suicide Index, a virtuosic ...

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The News from Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story

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“Joan Wickersham’s brilliant The News From Spain shows, in all its twisty beauty, what a short story collection can do. The stories are gorgeous in themselves, but the way they speak to each other is truly extraordinary.”—Elizabeth McCracken, author of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination

From the author of the acclaimed memoir The Suicide Index, a virtuosic collection of stories, each a stirring parable of the power of love and the impossibility of understanding, much less controlling, it.

In these seven beautifully wrought variations on a theme, a series of characters trace and retrace eternal yet ever-changing patterns of love and longing, connection and loss. The stories range over centuries and continents—from eighteenth-century Vienna, where Mozart and his librettist Da Ponte are collaborating on their operas, to America in the 1940s, where a love triangle unfolds among a doctor, a journalist, and the president’s wife. A race-car driver’s widow, a nursing-home resident and her daughter, a paralyzed dancer married to a famous choreographer—all feel the overwhelming force of passion and renunciation. With uncanny emotional exactitude, Wickersham shows how we never really know what’s in someone else’s heart, or in our own; how we continually try to explain others and to console ourselves; and how love, like storytelling, is ultimately a work of the imagination.

This eBook edition includes a Reading Group Guide. 

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Astute readers will know Wickersham as the author of National Book Award finalist The Suicide Index and will have seen her short fiction in Best American Short Stories. This theme-and-variation collection swirls across the globe and over centuries. The book on this list I'm most curious to see; with a reading group guide.
The New York Times Book Review - Tom Barbash
…an ode to heartbreak and regret, as well as to the unbidden intimacy that can emerge not only between friends but between strangers. Wickersham's gift is for capturing the habits of mind that lead even smart people to deceive themselves, make poor choices, slide into affairs or marriages that have little chance of succeeding…Wickersham adroitly mines the small moments around which relationships shift, the places where love begins or ends or falls into that troubling middle ground that haunts sleepless nights…Cumulatively her book makes you slow down and listen, and then watch for people to reveal themselves.
Publishers Weekly
Subtitled, "Seven Variations on a Love Story," each of the seven stories in this uneven collection is titled "The News from Spain" and makes ingenious use of that phrase somewhere in the narrative. A mother consigned to a nursing home and her adult daughter engage in an intricate dance of filial obligation after the mother's condition improves. At an all-boys school, a lone female student, 13, develops a friendship with her married Spanish teacher whose secret extracurricular activities will in time bring tragedy to the school. While being interviewed for a biography, the elderly widow of a long-dead race car driver is shocked by a confession from the biographer's wife. A married woman, for the amusement of a co-worker with whom she's in love, invents a story about a WWII-era doctor's relationship with two women. Although the stories are written with intelligence and acutely observed, some have overcomplicated framing devices, and there's not much variation throughout, making the concept feel more like a gimmick than a conceit that illuminates the characters' attempts to connect in a world of hidden desires. Agent: Gail Hochman, Brandt & Hochman. (Oct. 11)
From the Publisher
Best Books of 2012, San Francisco Chronicle

“Captivating…This wise and courageous and often brilliant collection of stories, written in clean, precise prose, is not only a pleasure to read, but also breaks new ground in our perceptions of what a short story can be… wonderfully imaginative and original.”
            —Robert Silman, The Boston Globe
 “When love begins to writhe and ferment, spread its inescapable fingers, when it does its hard work of forming real behavior, these are the realms Wickersham inhabits, finding the unlit fissures, the whispers of solace and grieving, betrayal and delusion, quotidian and ecstatic in language of infinite elegance.…[But] do not mistake Wickersham's exquisitely polished prose for good manners. Although [she] writes with an almost grave formality, a vintage grace (I mean that as a compliment), she is brutal and funny too, so that the stories' tension is heightened by one's awareness that the author is always on the verge of a startling observation.  Her roiling moods and tender characters, her trenchant truths, her careful and divine prose…[make] you wonder at the exquisite, tremulous tension in everything, the insatiable hungers for all kinds of connection, especially the connection to oneself.”
            —Susanna Sonnenberg, San Francisco Chronicle
“Virtuosic…but the more compelling triumph is Wickersham’s emotional cannonball into every single one of her characters. The doubts and tenderness they share are ones that only the finest fiction can create, because you, the reader, feel as much or more than anyone on the page, be it the private, searing heartache or the over-the-top, sloppy happiness that so often happens in real-life love.”
            —Leigh Newman,, Best of the Week

“Joan Wickersham makes a triumphant return to fiction with The News From Spain. This collection of tales draws forth a fascinating cast of characters…These stories are bound together by the universal search for companionship and understanding…Wickersham articulates subtleties of human behavior that ordinarily elude language altogether; she unveils her characters’ unacknowledged thoughts and emotions in a terse style that defies cliché in its commitment to realism. Wickersham paints everyday yet complex portraits of love, filigreed with truths that resonate.”
            —Catherine Straut, Elle
 “Elegantly structured, emotionally compelling…Wickersham dissects the human heart with precision and restraint that make her work all the more moving. Short stories don’t get much better than this.”
            —Kirkus Reviews
The News From Spain evokes hidden topographies of need, and the emotional tipping points that occasionally break through to the surface.”
            —Megan O’Grady,
“Joan Wickersham has done it again: astonished, enchanted, and moved me, this time in an unorthodox yet classically insightful collection of stories. While each one takes the reader to a world distinctly and alluringly its own, all seven tales come together at the end in a shimmering constellation. Like Alice Munro at her best, Wickersham sees almost too well how the choices we make in our many relationships--with parents, spouses, lovers, teachers, friends; even a chance acquaintance--steer our lives in unpredictable, sometimes shocking ways.” 
            —Julia Glass, author of Three Junes and The Widower's Tale
“Joan Wickersham's The News from Spain is a kaleidoscopic view of the subject of love. It is amazingly perceptive psychologically, a gorgeous, completely original work. I loved it. As soon as I finished it, I began to read it again.” 
            —André Gregory, co-author of My Dinner with André
“Joan Wickersham’s well-mannered characters control their responses to disappointment with outward finesse, which makes their heartbreak all the more potent. An expert in the he-and-she of it, Wickersham turns the most exquisitely particular truths into universals. The News from Spain is brilliant.”
            —Patricia Volk, author of Stuffed and To My Dearest Friends
"Desire is literature’s great subject, and yet so rarely can a writer come close to describing the real thing. In The News from Spain, Joan Wickersham has achieved something miraculous: seven prismatic stories that refract the lonely, marvelous, terrible complexity of human longing…Radiant with insight."
            —Suzanne Berne, author of A Crime in the Neighborhood, winner of the Orange Prize
“Love—and all its messy, gorgeous, decimating complications—animates this brilliantly conceived collection of stories. With astonishing acuity, Wickersham illuminates not only our passions but also our abiding consolations."
            —Dawn Raffel, author of Further Adventures in the Restless Universe
“Joan Wickersham's brilliant The News From Spain shows, in all its twisty beauty, what a short story collection can do. The stories are gorgeous in themselves, but the way they speak to each other is truly extraordinary.”
            —Elizabeth McCracken, author of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination
Library Journal
Intriguingly, this collection and the seven stories within it all share the same title, but locale is not what links them—in one story, set in a boarding school, the phrase is merely a Spanish teacher's tagline. Rather, the stories all are poignant and insightful, dealing with age, infirmity, and loss, or with love occurring late in life. The protagonists are mature women of independent means, who've led cultured, interesting lives, or they are younger persons whom we see from the vantage point of later life. Wickersham is as skilled as Alice Munro in maneuvering her characters, and the reader, through time. Characters and situations are revealed almost offhandedly, through conversation or minor revelation, or perhaps not at all. In one of the collection's best, we never learn exactly why a former star ballerina is now confined to a wheelchair, but we see intimately how immobility circumscribes her life. VERDICT Highly recommended for fans of modern short fiction.—Reba Leiding, James Madison Univ. Lib., Harrisonburg, VA
Kirkus Reviews
Elegantly structured, emotionally compelling fiction from novelist/memoirist Wickersham (The Suicide Index, 2008, etc.). The seven pieces here tell seven different stories, though each has the same title. "The News from Spain" is also a touchstone phrase in each, its meaning transformed by the characters' experiences. In the first tale, a woman whose longtime marriage has been rocked by a single infidelity sits on the beach with her friend, a man marrying for companionship and hoping his bride-to-be doesn't want sex; they listen to "the news from Spain" roaring in a seashell, a recollection of simpler times. The phrase encapsulates a daughter's discovery of her profound love for her dying mother; the excitement a teacher brings into a student's life; betrayal, tragedy and the eternal sameness amid varieties of love. Four pieces are pure fiction, but Wickersham is particularly interesting when she rings changes on history. A very long tale insightfully examines the real-life marriage of choreographer George Balanchine and ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq, stricken by polio and forced to accept her husband's unfaithfulness; but it is just as nuanced and shrewd about Le Clercq's relationship with her gay caregiver. The collection's best story imagines modern odysseys for the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro and Elvira from Don Giovanni, interpolating the memoirs of their creator, librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte; what could have been a gimmick is instead a beautiful meditation on art, love and friendship. The final piece is slightly bumpier as it interweaves memories of a platonic adultery that may or may not be fictional with the story of a New York doctor beloved by both a president's widow and a female journalist (unnamed, as were Balanchine and Le Clercq, but clearly Eleanor Roosevelt, Martha Gellhorn, and David Gurewitsch). Yet, here too Wickersham dissects the human heart with precision and restraint that make her work all the more moving. Short stories don't get much better than this, and for once, the overarching framework strengthens rather than dissipates their effectiveness.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307958891
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/9/2012
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 291,525
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Joan Wickersham was born in New York City. She is the author of two previous books, most recently The Suicide Index, a National Book Award finalist. Her fiction has appeared in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. Her op-ed column appears regularly in The Boston Globe; she has published essays and reviews in the Los Angeles Times and the International Herald Tribune; and she has contributed on-air essays to National Public Radio. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the MacDowell Colony, and Yaddo. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and two sons.
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Read an Excerpt

• •

The News from Spain

The news from Spain is terrible. A bomb under a park bench in a small town near Madrid. Fifteen people have been killed and dozens injured. Harriet tells the aide, who crosses herself; the nurse, who says, “It makes you want to stay home and never leave the house—but that would just be giving in to terrorism”; and her daughter Rebecca, who says, “Why do you spend all day watching that stuff?”

Rebecca is tired. Harriet has been sick on and off for years, more than a decade. Rebecca has just driven four hours from Boston to get to the Connecticut nursing home where Harriet now lives. She is taking two days off from the small bookstore she owns, paying her part-time assistant extra to cover for her. She’s brought a shopping bag full of things Harriet likes: rice pudding with raisins, shortbread, fresh figs, and a box of lame-juns from a Middle Eastern bakery. She has walked into the room and Harriet has barely looked away from the TV to say hello.

What Harriet says is, “They just interviewed a man whose granddaughter died in his arms.”

Rebecca puts down the shopping bag and kisses the top of her mother’s head. Someone has given Harriet a haircut, a sur- prisingly flattering one. Her head smells faintly of shampoo.

Harriet puts up a hand and feels for Rebecca’s face, briefly cupping her chin. “They think it was a Basque separatist group.”

Rebecca nods and goes down the hall to the kitchen, to put the rice pudding and lamejuns in the fridge. The hallway is full of wheelchairs, a straggly becalmed flotilla of gray people just sitting there, some with their heads lolling on their chests. On the way back to her mother’s room, she runs into the social worker assigned to Harriet’s case. Today is Halloween; the social worker is wearing a pirate hat and an eye patch. “How do you think your mom is doing?” she asks Rebecca.

“I think she’s still angry about being here,” Rebecca says. Harriet moved into the nursing home a month ago, after the rehab hospital said she had “plateaued,” and the assisted-living place said they couldn’t take her back.

“I know,” the social worker says. “But they adjust.”

When she goes back into her mother’s room, Harriet is watching for her. The TV is off. “I’m so glad you came,” Harriet says.

“I just ran into the social worker in the hall. She says you’re adjusting.”

“Bullshit,” Harriet says. “Did you bring stuffed grape leaves?”

“I didn’t remember that you liked them.”

“I love them.”

“Next time,” Rebecca says. She pulls over a chair and sits facing her mother. Harriet is in a wheelchair, paralyzed again—it has happened before, she has some rare chronic spinal disease, but this time the neurologist says it is permanent. Rebecca, who came down to go with her mother to that appointment last month, listened while he talked to Harriet about suffering and acceptance, about how what was happening to her was truly terrible, worse than what anyone should have to go through. Rebecca liked the doctor’s humanity, and thought it might be somewhat comforting to Harriet; certainly Harriet has always found it gratifying to be admired for her bravery. But Harriet was furious. “He’s talking philosophy when what I really want to hear about is stem-cell research.”

Rebecca feels guilty about not making it down to see her mother more often. Harriet is always mentioning something she needs—lavender talcum powder, or socks, or an afghan to put over her legs when they wheel her outside, or, she sighs, “just a really good turkey club sandwich.” Rebecca mails what she can, alternately touched by and annoyed by the many requests (are they wistful, or reproachful? Both, she thinks). (But they are also, simply, practical. These are the small things we live with, and Harriet now has no way to get hold of them.) She has talked to Harriet about moving to a nursing home in the Boston area. “It would be more convenient.”

“For you, you mean,” Harriet said. She is adamant about staying in this particular nursing home, because the man she’s in love with is in the assisted-living place next door, and comes over to visit her nearly every day. Rebecca thinks it’s great that her mother has someone, though she could do without some of Harriet’s more candid reports (“Ralph called me this morning and said, ‘I wish I could make love to you right now’ ”).

“How is Ralph?” Rebecca asks now.

Harriet shrugs. “He thinks I’m mad at him because he didn’t give me a birthday present.”

“Yes.” They laugh. They talk. Rebecca heats up some lame- juns in the kitchen microwave and makes Harriet a cup of tea. They hear the woman in the room next door say loudly, angrily, “Who washed my floor?” A low murmuring answer; then the angry woman again: “In the future I must ask that you not wash my floor without first giving me notice.”

Rebecca looks at Harriet. Harriet says, “At first I thought, Oh good, at least she sounds like she has all her marbles. But that’s all she ever says, on and on, day and night about the floor.”

Some lamejun has fallen onto the front of Harriet’s sweat- shirt; when she finally notices and brushes it off, it leaves a spot. “Damn it.” She wipes furiously away at it, but in the midst of the fury is also grinning ruefully at Rebecca—Can you believe it? How does it happen every single time? She’s a very large woman, and she’s been dropping food on her shirt for as long as Rebecca can remember. The last time Rebecca visited, on the day Harriet moved to the nursing home, the aide swathed Harriet’s front in an enormous terry-cloth bib before bringing in her dinner tray. Harriet allowed it, looking at Rebecca with a kind of stunned sadness; of all the enraging indignities of that day, this was the one that undid her. “She doesn’t need that,” Rebecca told the aide.

“We do it for everybody.”

“Right, but my mother doesn’t need it.”

So that was one small battle that Rebecca was there to win for Harriet. Without Rebecca, Harriet could have won it just fine for herself. Both of them knew this—and yet, between them, love has always had to be proved. It is there; and it gets proved, over and over. Some of their worst fights, confusingly, seem to both prove and disprove it: two people who didn’t love each other couldn’t fight like that—certainly not repeatedly.

Still, Rebecca has often wished for something quieter with Harriet. Are there mothers and daughters who can be happy together without saying much?

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Reading Group Guide

The questions, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of The News from Spain and of Wickersham’s near magical ability to capture the mystery and complexity of love.

1. The book opens with a succinct yet palpable description of the motel Susanne and John are staying in: “The rooms smelled of disinfectant and of bodies. . . .Outside, the wind was dazzling and salty” (p. 3). How does this establish an emotional backdrop to the narrative that follows? Which physical details in the descriptions of the wedding party (pp. 14–20) and the meeting between Susanne and Barnaby (pp. 22–25) offer insights into the psychological state of the characters?

2. Compare Barbara and Barnaby’s reasons for getting married (p. 21) to Susanne’s reflections on her marriage (pp. 23–24). Do their points of view represent the real choices open to them or are they based on compromise and rationalization? Why are Barnaby and Susanne reluctant to share their thoughts with each other? Are there limits to the trust enjoyed between friends? If so, why?

3. Harriet and Rebecca know that between them “love has always had to be proved. It is there; and it gets proved, over and over” (p. 29). In what ways does Harriet’s illness become a testing ground for both of them? Is it surprising or unusual that “they were having, in the middle of all this dire stuff, a good time together” (p. 34)? Why does their intimacy deteriorate during the periods Harriet when enjoys relatively good health?

4. How do the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship affect Rebecca’s approach to the men in her life and influence the course of her affairs with Peter and with Ben?

5. The third story in the book, told in the second person, presents the point of view of an unnamed young girl; it is also the only story divided into distinct sections. What effect do these techniques have on the reader’s impressions of the protagonist, the events described, and the other characters?

6. The narrative of the third story captures the awkwardness and excitement of becoming a teenager—of finding a place within a school’s social structure, discovering the opposite sex, flourishing under a special teacher’s care, and observing often puzzling adult behavior. In what ways do each of the mini-chapters in this story set the stage for scandalous revelation and the girl’s reaction to it (pp. 75–76)? Why is the summation (“The Rest of the Story” and “The End”) related from an adult point of view?

7. What part do memories and dreams play in the dancer’s attempts to reconcile herself to her physical helplessness? When her husband leaves for the tour, “They kiss—familiar, fond, nothing more, except she thinks there is a careful brightness between them, an implicit understanding that to regret, or even acknowledge any awareness of, their mutual unerotic kindness would be pointless and unwise” (pp. 84–85). Is this the best (or only) way for these characters to deal with their situation, or would they benefit from more openness and honesty?

8. What do the details about Malcolm’s private life add to the central portrait of the dancer’s troubled marriage? Are there similarities between the two relationships? Between the dancer and Malcolm, the choreographer and Tim? What do the scene in the bathtub and the story the dancer tells Malcolm illustrate about the power of illusion and fantasy in our lives?

9. Do the sketches of Charlie and Liza (pp. 116–19) and Alice (pp. 119–24) establish a sense of how their meeting will unfold? Does the interview belie or conform to your expectations? What particular moments or comments transform the dynamics of the encounter and why?

10. What inspires Liza to confess her secret to Alice? What qualities, experiences, or beliefs unite Liza and Alice despite the differences in their ages and situations? Why do people often tell a relative stranger something they have hidden from those closest to them?

11. Discuss the parallels between the lives and loves of Elvira and Rosina and their namesakes in the Mozart and Da Ponte operas. (If you are not familiar with Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni, brief summaries are readily available online). How do the playful yet pointed echoes of the classic operas (and the legendary adventures of Don Juan) set a tone and enrich the atmosphere of the contemporary stories? What do they convey about the universal complications, pain, and pleasures of love?

12. Da Ponte writes “But I have learned that memory is inconstant, which is perhaps its greatest danger and yet also its greatest virtue” (p. 160). What light does this cast on Elvira’s attachment to Johnny and its effect on her life and her work? To what extent is the friendship between Elvira and Rosina built on the sharing and preserving of their personal and perhaps faulty versions of the past?

13. A happily married woman unsettled by a sudden rush of love for a colleague sums up her emotional turmoil with both wit and poignancy: “My feelings—let’s hold on to this idea of them as shuffling Victorians, let’s make them servants, an entire uniformed household staff—were fresh, raw, perpetually startled. They weren’t sensible” (p.178). Why is this metaphor so effective? What does it say about the battle between emotions and reason, between heart and head?

14. The final story begins with a simple pronouncement: “Some of this is fiction, and some isn’t” (p. 176). To what extent does the appeal of the story about the doctor, the journalist, and the president’s wife stem from the combination of fact and fiction? Why does Wickersham leave the “famous woman” unnamed although her identity is quite clear? What draws the woman to the doctor and him to her? In what ways do her public and her private identities overlap, and how do they differ? What effect does this have on the way she conducts herself with the doctor? Why does the discovery of the journalist’s affair with the doctor affect her so deeply (pp.198–200)? Does the narrator present each character in an objective way or does her own situation color her opinions and speculations about them?

15. Linking her two stories, the narrator of the last story says, “I am writing about women, about love and humiliation. Men do it to us, but mostly we do it to ourselves. We love the wrong people; we love at the wrong time. We think we can make it right, reconcile the irreconcilable” (p. 194). Which other stories feature women who struggle to explain, justify, or simply make the best of difficult relationships? Are there male characters who find themselves in similar situations?

16. Infidelity and betrayal play a central role in The News from Spain. Many of the characters are involved in or are considering an affair; friendships and family relationships are also betrayed, either intentionally or as a consequence of carelessness or self-interest. Discuss the various forms of unfaithfulness and deception depicted in these stories and what they reveal about the unpredictable, often uncontrollable passions that underlie acts of transgression.

17. “A love story—your own or anyone else’s—is interior, hidden. It can never be accurately reported, only imagined. It is all dreams and invention. It’s guesswork” (p. 201). How does this insight shape and inform The News from Spain?

18. What is the significance of the subtitle “Seven Variations on a Love Story”? Do you see these stories as parts of a whole or as separate entities? In what ways do the stories amplify one another? Does the arrangement create a unifying thread and forward momentum?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 3 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 5, 2013

    Loved it!

    She's a fine writer. I especially liked the one about the wife of the famous choreographer (Balanchine, I assume)and her caretaker. Touching and insightful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 1, 2013

      At first it seems like a simple collection of short stories, b

      At first it seems like a simple collection of short stories, but trust your instincts and read on because Ms. Wickersham shows us that love, in all its varied forms, is never quite as simple as it seems.  Her prose is perceptive and eloquent as she draws you in to the stories of seven seemingly unrelated characters, but what you will eventually realize is that she is penetrating your own soul in seven different ways, making you question everything you thought you knew about what it means to love and be loved.  
    I picked this book up thinking it would be good bedtime reading, but I never got to sleep that first night as the pages just kept turning themselves.  It is a lovely understated book worth reading many times over.    

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 21, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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