McGraw (Bodies at Sea, Univ. of Illinois, 1989) offers nine short stories about relationships between men and women in contemporary suburban America. The characters are misfits, alcoholics, people in unhappy marriages, people with worries about parents and children; the characters and situations are authentic, and the stories are both melancholic and humorous. Iris, in "A Suburban Story," re-creates the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, to the consternation and embarrassment of herself and her family. The final three stories are related, centering on Mary Grace, in 1958 a young mother, in 1968 an older mother, and finally in 1991 a widow. In each we see the worries, misunderstandings, and family tensions that affect a basically good and well-meaning woman.
-- Mary Margaret Benson, Linfield College Library, Mcminnville, Oregon
A first collection that displays a sure hand and an even voice busily at work documenting the struggles of regular people trying to lead ordinary lives. At her best, McGraw encourages us to see sainthood in its human context, relevant to the most mundane experiences.
Two of these nine stories have appeared in The Atlantic, others in small magazines, and most of them concern the stuff of domestic fictiondivorce, alcoholism, children. In "The Return of the Argentine Tango Masters," an ex-husband arrives back in town to make things difficult for his remarried former wife, winning over her radio talk show audience with his smooth talk. A marriage gets off to a rocky start when the restaurateur of "Rich" is fooled at his engagement party into thinking he's won the lottery and decides on the spot to cancel his wedding, a mistake from which the eventual marriage seems incapable of recovering. Less plausibly, the young divorced woman in "Her Father's House," a lifelong teetotaler, takes up drinking with a vengeance when her alcoholic father dies. "A Suburban Story" veers into the fantastical when a harried housewife is reported to have performed a miracle at a local clinic, even though her home life is in total disarray. This flirtation with saintliness emerges fully in the strongest part of the book, a triptych of related stories about a large Irish Catholic family, first seen through its mother, Mary Grace, who at 39, with five kids, begins to feel useless, old, and unappreciated. Ten years later, her daughter, the rosary-lusting 11-year-old Tracy, loses faith over the fate of her distemper- afflicted puppy. The last portrait, of a widowed Mary Grace many years later, finds her in conflict with her grown children over who had the firmer "grip on holiness" in her family.
Without rancor, these poignant moral tales gently go beyond most family fiction; they would merit our attention even if that were their only distinction.