Given the range of both narratives, this work of extravagantly fine fiction cannot really be called a short-story collection. It's more of a reunion, or a set of successfully completed jigsaw puzzles. Each of the two quartets has been pieced together into a time-traveling novella filled with hindsight and passion and ever-evolving emotions. This book also includes four free-standing stories that have nothing to do with one another. But even if its format were more commonplace, Where the God of Love Hangs Out would still be something special. Ms. Bloom's characters are uncommonly fully formed, seldom young, some of them well into old age. Yet they sustain the ability to surprise one anotherand themselves.
The New York Times
Francine du Plessix Gray
Bloom…vividly chronicles the inner lives of people caught in emotional and physical constraintsillnesses they are striving to survive, regrets they are trying to allay, desires they often dare not fulfill. She writes in beautifully wrought prose, with spunky humor and a flair for delectably eccentric details. Her narrative talents include a fine touch with flashbacks, which she handles as suavely as any writer I can think of. Her gift for dialogue is equally terrific…Brava, Ms. Bloom. Send us an equally sly, dashing book very soon, please.
The New York Times Book Review
Sarah L. Courteau
…an antidote to the testosterone-laced worldview. These are quiet, well-executed tales of love, loss and family
The Washington Post
Bloom's latest collection (after novel Away) looks at love in many forms through a keenly perceptive lens. Two sets of stories that read much like novellas form the book's soul; the first of which revolves around two couples—William and Isabel, Clare and Charles—and begins with Clare and William falling into an affair that endures divorces, remarriage and illness. Bloom has an unsettling insight into her character's minds: Clare's self-disgust is often reflected in her thoughts about William, demonstrating the complexity of their attraction as their comfort with each other grows, until she finally accepts the beauty of what they have—albeit too late. The second set of stories, featuring Lionel and Julia, is more complicated; the death of Lionel's father propels Lionel and Julia together in a night of grief, remarkable (and icky) mostly because Julia is Lionel's stepmother and his father's widow. As years go by, it is unclear whether Lionel's difficulties are due to that indiscretion, but watching Bloom work Lionel, Julia and her son through the rocky aftermath is a delight. The four stand-alone stories, while nice, have a hard time measuring up against the more immersive interlinked material, which, really, is quite sublime. (Jan.)
Bloom's new collection features two sets of connected stories that characterize the far-reaching trajectory of love within memorable groups of characters. In one grouping, William and Clare, literature professors in two parallel marriages, are drawn to each other in middle age after years as highly compatible friends. In the other, Lionel, the adolescent son of a well-known jazz musician, and Julia, recently widowed from that musician, are forced to redefine their relationship in the face of the man's death. In both sequences, realignments between children and adults are unpredictable but deeply felt. VERDICT The characters from the two sets of linked stories are so engaging that the inhabitants of the four strong stand-alone entries feel like mere walk-ons. Readers of Bloom's earlier collections will be happy to reencounter some of the characters they've already met, as two of the stories are from Come to Me and A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You. An eminently readable new collection. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 9/1/09.]—Sue Russell, Bryn Mawr, PA
Nine uncollected stories plus three that appeared in earlier collections are interestingly arranged and recombined in this latest from the Manhattan psychotherapist and versatile author (Away, 2008, etc.). The first four chronicle the adulterous relationship, then the sad late-life marriage of 50-somethings Clare and William, who find amorous moments together during shared vacations and visits to and with each other's unsuspecting spouses. Bloom's plainspoken, witty prose is displayed to fine effect in unglamorous snapshot revelations of self-indulgent, heart-attack-waiting-to-happen William and weary, unillusioned Clare (who sardonically asks herself, "What has it ever been between them but the rubbing of two broken wings?"). Four other interrelated stories span years of familial and less conventional love between Julia, a music journalist who becomes a black jazz musician's third wife, then his widow, and his son and namesake Lionel, a biracial heartthrob who is drawn much too closely into intimacy with his grieving stepmother. Except for the last of these four, in which Lionel is both further injured and paradoxically healed by his weakness and guilt, this is an original and moving dramatization of the complex burdens of togetherness and independence, soaring ambition and muted resignation. The remaining unrelated stories-which seem to belong in another book-are a mixed bag. "Permafrost" suggestively links a hospital social worker's compassionate identification with a young girl's sufferings to the former's lifelong fascination with the historic Shackleton Arctic expedition. "Between here and here" and "By-and-By" deal somewhat melodramatically with family-related traumas. But in thewry title story, stoic survival is persuasively incarnated in a saturnine widower who takes botched relationships, failing bodily functions, even "women OD'ing on coke in front of their children" phlegmatically in stride. Not Bloom at her very best, but impressive enough confirmation of this clever writer's ability to challenge the way we see ourselves and to show us as we are.
Love may well be a many splendored thing, but the love that most interests Amy Bloom is often inconvenient if not downright inappropriate-yet all the more mesmerizing for being so. Beginning with "Love Is Not a Pie," the opening story in her stunning debut collection, Come to Me (1993), Bloom, a social worker who has practiced psychotherapy and teaches creative writing at Yale, has plumbed the depths of difficult, complicated, intimate relationships with uncommon immediacy, sympathy, nuance, and wit.
The title story and the two quartets of linked stories that dominate "Where the God of Love Hangs Out" focus on passion in forbidden, problematic forms: adultery and incest. This third collection, 12 stories in all, follows Away (2007), Bloom's rousing picaresque novel set in the 1920s about the adventures of a plucky Jewish immigrant's transcontinental search for her lost daughter, a toddler who disappeared back home in Russia during a pogrom. It's not only a return to short fiction and contemporary settings, but a return to two unlikely couples, both of whose sagas she brings to rather sad conclusions.
Julia Sampson and her stepson, Lionel, Jr., were first introduced on the day of Lionel, Sr.'s funeral in the story "Sleepwalking" in Come to Me. They appeared again in two followup tales in Bloom's second collection, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You (2000). Conveniently-if somewhat surprisingly--all three stories are reprinted in this new book, along with a final coda, "Fort Useless and Fort Ridiculous." It's wonderful to have them all together. Both of Bloom'squartets are more episodic than chapters in a novel and feature the shifting points of view and narrative hiccups typical of linked stories. But because they progress chronologically, hew close to a central story line, and move decisively toward resolutions that tie up loose ends, they provide many of the satisfactions of long-form fiction without its bulk.
Julia, a part Italian, part Jewish jazz critic, was the third wife of Lionel, Sr., a Grammy-nominated alto saxophonist whom she saved from alcohol while raising their son Buster and Lionel, Jr., his son from his second marriage. Upon meeting seven-year-old Lion, who had lost his mother to drugs, Julia says she saw hope in his eyes and "knew that I had found someone else to love." She adds, "I think because I chose to love him, chose to be a mother and not just his father's wife, Lion gave me back everything he could. He was my table setter, car washer, garden weeder; in 12 years, I might've raised my voice to him twice."
Everything changes after Lionel, Sr.'s funeral, when 19-year-old Lion crawls into bed and makes love to his youthful stepmother, an act Bloom describes with searing honesty. It's a scene that's reminiscent of the consoling sex in the movie "Summer of '42," also between a grieving young widow and a lovestruck adolescent. But in this case, it's a transgression with lifelong consequences. Julia regrets it at once, stating, "I was already sorrier than I'd ever been in my whole life, sorry enough for this life and the next." Wanting to staunch the damage, she sends Lion away-which he interprets as rejection. Years later, their "one shameful, gold-rimmed night together . . . still runs through her like bad sap."
The three succeeding Sampson stories consider Julia and Lion's abiding awkwardness and gradual rapprochement after a 15-year estrangement. Settled in Paris, he's become an expert in international maritime law but a failure at intimacy. In "Light Into Dark," both sons join Julia in Massachusetts for their first Thanksgiving together in more than 20 years. Intending to hurt, Lion says to his now 60-year-old stepmother, "It's not like we would ever be lovers now." Julia responds sharply, "We were never lovers. We had sex," though Bloom captures the conflicting emotions at play with the immediate qualification, "but this is not what she believes." Julia rues the "knot" in her alcoholic stepson's heart, wondering, "How did we cripple you so?...Couldn't you have been the kind of man who overcomes terrible misfortune, even a truly calamitous error in judgment?"
"Fort Useless and Fort Ridiculous" finds the Sampsons coming together for another Thanksgiving years later. It's clear they've survived as a family. Even Lion, sober and remarried, has reached a measure of equilibrium. Without giving away too much, let's just say that a precipitous plot development leads to what feels like a somewhat hasty wrapup of this compelling family saga. What remains remarkable, however, is the refreshing ease with which Bloom writes about a variety of unconventional relationships, including mixed-race marriages, bonds between step-families that survive divorce, and Julia's comforting late-life affairs with a lesbian musician and one half of a gay couple.
Bloom brings this same nonjudgmental sympathy to another unlikely couple, grossly overweight William Langford and "spiky," "crabby" Clare Wexler, in four stories previously published in literary magazines but never before between hardcovers. William and Clare are soul mates, academics each married to attractive, nurturing spouses. They have sustained a close four-way friendship for years. Then, late one night while watching CNN, William and Clare upset the balance by becoming lovers. Like Julia, Clare "knew it wasn't a great idea almost immediately after it happened.") But this is not another story about repenting at leisure; Bloom's concern here is the courage-and costs--of seizing the day.
With humor, pathos, and a sharp economy that recalls Grace Paley's zesty prose, Bloom pulls us into her characters' dilemma. Obese, arthritic William is a heart attack waiting to happen. Clare, unlike William's pretty, solicitous wife Isabel, is an anti-romantic with a "squinty, unyielding nature," in the mold of Laurie Colwin's difficult, prickly women. Despite the havoc their relationship wreaks, they are ineffably drawn to each other: "Everything she thought about while driving up, how much trouble he is and how selfish and where all that shameless piggery has gotten him (gout and her), is nothing when he kisses her," Bloom writes, and we think, ah yes, this is about passion and chemistry. But then Bloom tips the scales, adding with typical frankness, "although even when their lips touch, even as the soft, salty tip of his tongue connects with hers, they are not the best kisses she's ever had."
Well, these may not be the best love stories we've ever read-it's hard to compete with the Russian classics--but they're certainly among the least starry-eyed and most compulsively absorbing. As Bloom makes clear throughout her work, the god of love hangs out in unlikely places and often exacts exorbitant fees-but tough luck, it's a small price to pay for feeling alive. --Heller McAlpin
From the Publisher
“Beautifully astute . . . extravagantly fine fiction.” —Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“Wise and resounding . . . [Amy] Bloom joins the ranks of the unforgettable: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s eyeless time; Virginia Woolf’s impassivity in the progress of her characters’ lives.”—Los Angeles Times
“[Bloom] writes in beautifully wrought prose, with spunky humor and a flair for delectably eccentric details. . . . Brava.”—The New York Times Book Review
“To read Bloom is to fall in love—with her characters and with the magic that language can make.”—More
“Stirring . . . Characters [are] rendered in sexy, loving, living color.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“[An] indelible new collection . . . Bloom illuminates the way our affections define us, old and young, for better or worse.”—People
“Moving, shocking, written with compassion and understanding and generously reflective of the fragility of our lives.”—The Miami Herald
Read an Excerpt
Your Borders, Your Rivers, Your Tiny Villages
At two o'clock in the morning, no one is to blame.
We'd been watching CNN, one scene of disaster leading to the next, the reporter in front of what might have been a new anthrax outbreak giving way to the military analyst in the studio with new developments in Kabul, when William put his hand on my breast. My husband was asleep upstairs, dreaming of making the deal that would put us on high ground when the entire economy collapsed, and William's wife was asleep in the guest room, getting her restorative eight hours. I think of Isabel as forcefully regular and elegant in all of her habits, and I'm sure she thinks of me as a little askew in all of mine.
William's hand trembled slightly. Our two plain gold wedding bands twinkled in the light of the TV screen. He touched my breast through my bathrobe and my pajamas—I had dressed for watching TV with William as if for bundling—for a very long time. His touch, left forefinger on left nipple, through wool and flannel, should have been numbing in its dreamy repetition, but it was not; it captured my whole body's attention. We kept our eyes on the TV. Finally, he fumbled under my robe and opened two buttons of my pajama top. His hand moved across my breast, and I sighed. I heard him breathing, hard and damp, and I put my hand on his big belly. It does not seem possible that we are people with three children, two marriages, and a hundred and ten years between us.
The first time I made out in a car, it was with Roger Saleta from Far Rockaway. We were trying to end the war in Vietnam by flooding the local draft board with mail and marching in front of it whenever our class schedules allowed. I had spoken at a big rally, wearing an electric-blue nylon halter top and my tight bell-bottoms with a crucified Jesus painted on the right leg. (I pretended not to know, and it may have been that I actually did not know then, why some people found this offensive. "I'm not mocking Jesus," I told my mother. "I'm just representing him, on my jeans.") Roger circled around the parking lot after the rally and offered me a ride in his gold Camaro. We drove to Jones Beach, miles from the protest, miles from social studies and home ec, and we stayed in the car while the waves crashed and we worked at each other. Hands and mouths. Necks and elbows. He licked me through my jeans until they were wet and dark blue from inseam to belt buckle. I wanted to bang my head against the back of the seat from pleasure, and dug my hands into his black curls instead. This boy, not my idea of a lover, not even my idea of a date, had my body humming, dancing its tiny, fierce dance in the backseat. His hands under me and his mouth shamelessly pressed against me, as if the rest of the world could sink into the ocean out there and we would not even blink, or maybe, yes, blink dully, just once, before we returned to the real world of my pussy and his mouth. Later, we went to his prom, and I saw that he couldn't dance, which I hadn't known, and that his eyes were much too close together, which I had known and ignored, and I was a big disappointment to him that night. ***
William whispered something to me, but they were showing night bombing in the north and I couldn't hear him over the shouting correspondent. "May I?" he said again, and put his mouth over my nipple. William is English, and he has beautiful manners. He has never failed to open the door, to pull out the chair, to slip off the coat, to bring flowers and send thank-you notes. It is not an affectation. Charles, my husband, is the same way, and it's not an affectation in him, either. They are both sons of determined English mothers and quiet American fathers who let their wives have their way. Charles and William are friends, Isabel and I are friends. It is all just as bad as it sounds. The close friendship has always been between me and William, from the moment we stood snickering together at that first faculty meeting until now. Everybody knows that William and I are, inexplicably but truly, best friends. I think his size and my shyness, and, of course, Isabel's beauty and Charles's good looks, gave us permission to love each other and hold hands in public, looking, I'm sure, like a woolly mammoth and a stiff-tailed duck, just that odd and just that ridiculous.
Even when they moved back to Boston after their one year in New Haven, back to his university and her real estate, we stayed friends. Isabel and I have had pedicures together, we've dissected our husbands and considered the possibility that a little collagen around the mouth might not be a bad idea. All four of us have sat at our kitchen tables, talking through their daughter's suicidally bad time in Prague and our son Danny's near-engagement to an awful girl from Bryn Mawr. I like that William is such a good storyteller; she likes that Charles is so clever with his hands. When we visit, she gives him a "Honey Do" list and he pops around their house with his toolbox all afternoon and Isabel follows behind, handing him nails and a caulk gun, while William and I play Scrabble. She used to asked me for advice on getting William to watch his weight, which I gave, which was useless, and I felt terrible for her. After his first heart attack, she called me in tears, and I thought, Well, of course he has got to exercise and drink less and stop smoking and cut out the bacon and if I were his wife I would have him on egg whites and a thimbleful of sherry, but I'm not. William called me from the hospital and said, "Please eat some butter for me." We continued to meet at every intriguing restaurant he'd hear about, Abbott's Lobster in the Rough, Ma Glockner's for the chicken dinner, and we spent half a day finding a little place in Kent that had outstanding macaroni and cheese.
We've come to our quartet already grown up, with our longstanding convictions and habits and odd ways in place, and none of us has changed very much since we met. Isabel is much fitter and William is a little fatter and Charles dropped tennis for golf, coming home flushed and handsome, cursing cheerfully about his handicap and his stroke. Charles and William and Isabel e-mail one another news every day, and when we're together, Charles and William watch CNN for hours, drinking their Guinness. They talk like they've just come from a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Isabel joins in, perching on the end of the sofa near William, clucking her tongue when the scroll at the bottom of the screen says: air strikes hit all al qaeda training camps in afghanistan . . . during the raid on beit jala, israeli forces arrested 10 palestinians and killed 6. I don't know if she is clucking because six isn't enough or because it is way too much. Isabel reads The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times every day and I don't. It's not as if I waltz around the homestead with a big bow in my blond curls, picking daisies and waiting for the grown-ups to sit down to the nice dinner I've made. I teach, I go to the movies, I talk to my grown sons frequently (Adam is a news-watcher, Danny is a news-avoider, and all that matters to me is that they both live in small, safe towns in the Midwest and neither has children). I don't watch the news with my friends' avidity; I have not constructed a mental map of Afghanistan so that I can track troops, bombs, and food drops, and I will not even discuss whether or not we should call Bobby Bernstein, Charles's new golfing partner, and ask him for doxycycline.
William and I had a date to watch Mrs. Dalloway. Charles and Isabel had kissed good night, the way we often kiss one another, something more than lips on cheek, nicely suggestive of restrained passion, as if, under the right circumstances, Charles and Isabel and William and I would just fall upon each other.
"Let's watch a bit of the news first," William said. I made popcorn for later. We would sit with my feet in his lap, and he would ask for another beer and more salt, and I would get it. Then William would sigh with pleasure at having everything he wanted, and so would I.
The Appalachian Trail through New Jersey is like the road to hell. My boyfriend Danny and I slogged through swamp and low water, past dozens of orange blazes, which indicated not trail but possible paths through purgatory, until in the dark we found a flat, meadowy place. As soon as we stopped moving, mosquitoes descended upon us, attacking every moist, warm spot. They flew into our eyes, our mouths, our ears, burrowing through our wet, salty hair to our scalps. Trying to be quick in their buzzing black fog, we threw down our tarps and our sleeping bags and dove into them, clothes and boots still on. It was eighty degrees outside and perhaps ninety-five in our sleeping bags, but the choice was to be bitten all night or lie in pools of sweat until dawn. Danny zipped our bags together, and we rolled back to back, rank and itching and, as I recall, furious with each other—me because he had picked the trail into Rattlesnake Swamp, him because I laughed unkindly every time he unfolded our Sierra Club map that afternoon and said, "This looks right." Just before dawn, the bugs disappeared to digest and rest up to prepare for the second wave. Danny, the gentlest of boys, willowy and devoted, slid on top of me, rolled my underpants down to my ankles with one hand, pushed my legs apart, and came into me like a stranger. We lay there, stuck together from hip to collarbone, faces turned away, until it was light enough to leave.
William said, "Come here, on top of me. Come sit on my lap, darling." In six years, he has never called me anything but my name. Just one time, when we were chatting on the phone and his other line rang, he said, "Hold on a tick, dear." I climbed up on him, just as he asked, and draped myself over his stomach, resting my face against his shoulder, kissing it through his shirt. I unbuttoned his collar and ran my fingers around his thick neck, into his hair and down through the gray hairs beneath his undershirt.
"Oh, yes," he said. I turned around and lay back against him, and he cupped my breasts under my pajama top, and we watched Jeff Greenfield and then the young woman who dyed her hair brown to go to Afghanistan. "At least it's not Fox," William said. "Fox News, bloody Bill O'Reilly. Pandering little hairball." He put his hands around my waist and pressed me close to him, and I could feel his stomach, his shirt buttons, his belt buckle against my spine, and his very hard erection underneath me.
I said I could feel him, and I put my head back so he would kiss my neck. He slid his lips up and down, and then his teeth and then his tongue. He pressed me closer. "You should have known me twenty years ago," he said. "Thirty years ago. Back in my flowering youth." I said that I was just as glad not to have known him in his flowering youth and that it had never occurred to me that I would know him this way, even in his autumnal splendor.
"What now?" he said, and we both looked to the right and the left, to Isabel on one side and Charles on the other and the television in front of us. I shrugged and I felt William shrug, too. "Face me," he said. "I miss seeing you, otherwise."
From the Hardcover edition.