Spencer recounts the details and doings of her characters in such spare, unfussy, almost conversational prose that she sounds at first like nothing so much as a shrewd family storyteller…Spencer's great gift is her ability to take ordinariness and turn it inside out, to find focus in a muddle. She constructs her stories out of gossip and old memories and anecdotes not so much for their own sakes but as a means of locating the mysteries about people, the things that don't add up. She's more interested in the subterranean emotions, the half-forgotten grudges, the ancient allegiances that animate every family's history. And she's interested in how time changes things, sometimes because we can't escape the past, but just as often because we can't reclaim it…Spencer has the knack of knowing just where to end a story and just how much detail is necessary to bring a character into focus…There is nothing pat about these stories. Each manages to take you by surprise in one way or another, and there's not a dud in the lot.
The New York Times Book Review - Malcolm Jones
Home and family loom large in the nine stories collected in Spencer’s (Marilee) sixth collection. In almost every one, the departure or return of a character serves as a catalyst for action. “Sightings” begins with Mason Everett speculating a bit anxiously about a requested meeting with his adult daughter, Tabitha. A recently widowed, long-lost friend appears unexpectedly in “Return Trip.” In “The Boy in the Tree,” Wallace Harkins pays a surprise visit to his mother to try to straighten out the tension between her and his wife Jenny. Spencer has a special gift for the nuances in “ordinary” human relationships; she creates suspense via anticipation more than through interactions themselves. Place also figures prominently, with most stories set explicitly in small towns in the South, including in Spencer’s native Mississippi. She writes in a relaxed and engaged style, with a considerable amount of dialogue and multiple breaks in each story. In the short but affecting “The Everlasting Light,” a father is moved to unexpected but understandable tears by a small moment of communion with his young daughter. Spencer’s strength lies in highlighting human truths in captured moments. (Jan.)
“Spencer’s first work of fiction, a novel titled Fire in the Morning, was published in 1948, and, as affirmed by her new collection of short fiction, these many years have not dulled the sharpness of her prose nor inched her into out-of-date perceptions of the world. Grand dame of southern letters that Spencer is, she remains a vital, passionate, contemporary-issues writer. [These stories] show the control and ease of a master; each story has superb qualities of artistry and social relevance.”
“There seems to be nothing this extraordinary writer can’t do… Spencer recounts the details and doings of her characters in such spare, unfussy, almost conversational prose that she sounds at first like nothing so much as a shrewd family storyteller…. Spencer’s great gift is her ability to take ordinariness and turn it inside out, to find focus in a muddle…Dazzling…a work of genius.”
Malcolm Jones - New York Times Book Review
“Spencer [is] an elegant and subtle writer.… Like Chekhov, the moments of most acute miserythose achingly common things that nearly kill us allare offstage.… There are nine stories here, all wonderful, subtle and complexwhich makes the cumulative effect all the more alarming.”
Ann Beattie - San Francisco Chronicle
“Spencer’s stories dance with the illusion of happiness but swell with unspoken sadness. Humor bubbles to the surface in the most unexpected ways …but that humor, too, is fragile….Starting Over is a veritable Whitman’s sampler of bite-sized stories stitched together by their shared stillness.”
Michelle Moriarity Witt - The Charlotte Observer
“She is, as she ever was, one of America’s best short story writers, with her invention and craft undimmed. Next time they bring out Spencer’s Selected Fiction they will have to wedge in at least two more masterpieces from Starting Over…”
Spencer's elegant stories are more about what doesn't happen than what does. Although this collection occasionally bespeaks a South right out of a Horton Foote play, what Spencer explores is less the histrionics so often associated with Southern domestic fiction than the muted desperation generated by imploding marriages. Adult children still displaced by divorce constitute a major motif in "Blackie" and "Sightings." In "Return Trip," a newly wealthy friend visiting Asheville (ostensibly to see the arson-ravaged Thomas Wolfe House) reminds a couple that a long-ago night of drinking at a family reunion has forever cast the parentage of their only son into doubt. In "Rising Tide," a divorcée, working as an adjunct professor, meets an Indian student who poses a courtly contrast to her prickly and still needy ex-husband. As its title insinuates, "On the Hill " is a horror story but of a very different sort--a glamorous couple, their origins carefully concealed, moves to town and gives sparkling dinner parties. Then why does their son keep appearing on the narrator's doorstep? After the family moves away, the narrator, herself about to give birth after a long reproductive drought, is haunted by her failure to intervene in a menacing situation, the exact nature of which she fails to grasp--thanks mostly to good manners. In "The Wedding Visitor," a congressman's aide, formerly a poor or at least unwelcome relation, returns to the family compound where he spent summers as a child for a cousin's wedding. He finally secures his status in his extended family when, a true Washington insider in training, he averts a fiscal scandal. Quiet and spare prose ferries tiny but explosive clues which point to powerful insights lurking between the lines. This collection should garner new readers for Spencer, who, despite a long and productive career, is still best known for her novella The Light in the Piazza (1960) and the ensuing movie and musical. In Spencer's world, the emotional debt ceiling is always on the rise.
Set in the American South, new stories from veteran author Spencer look deeply at family connections and estrangements. For more than 50 years, her fiction, which includes seven story collections and nine novels, has been widely acclaimed and admired by such masters as Eudora Welty and Alice Munro. These nine tales are immediately accessible but carefully layered with tension, mystery, and unanswered questions. Is there really a boy in a tree, or is an old lady delusional? What happened, or did not happen, between a young woman and her (loosely defined) male cousin, who pays an unexpected visit? What possesses another visiting cousin, in town for a family wedding, to help out the morally dubious fiancée? Spencer leaves these questions open, allowing the reader to imagine the emotional deals that are made between husbands, wives, and assorted others as life continues beyond the page. VERDICT Readers who have enjoyed Spencer's earlier work will not be disappointed by the current collection, and new readers will have the pleasure of discovering a large body of work that is bound to satisfy.—Sue Russell, Bryn Mawr, PA