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May 5, 2014

“What You’ve Been Missing”

by Anne Paddock

Never judge a book by its cover…..

The cover art of What You’ve Been Missing is a painting by Roger Brown called It’s a Wonderful Lie and is as telling as the short story collection written by Janet Desaulniers. A rectangular piece of art divided into eight sections, It’s a Wonderful Lie depicts life as we live and the impending disaster ahead: we come together and marry; we divorce and part; we enjoy a drive in a convertible and unexpectedly get hit by a truck; we run our businesses and we go to jail; and finally, we exercise and strengthen our bodies only to succumb to death.

41mN8OVnypL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Roger Brown (1941-1997) created bold pieces of art that have been called “personal, provocative, and political” delivering an ironic and often satirical commentary of current events in our culture. That Desaulniers chose to place artwork that depicts life in all its joy and despair is exactly why a reader should judge this book by its cover: It’s a perfect match.

Published in 2004 and awarded the John Simmons Short Fiction Award from the University of Iowa, What You’ve Been Missing includes ten short stories that range from 5-21 pages with every story having a general theme of where people start and where they end up, although the interpretation seems to be deliberately vague to encourage the reader to question assumptions.

The stories tend to take place in the mid-west, all with an emphasis on the family. Sisterhood in all its devotion is played out in Where We All Should Have Been when an older daughter is called home by a mother, who doesn’t want to mother a younger teenage child; and in Who Knows More Than You, the author looks at the relationship between two sisters who escaped from an abusive home only to be haunted by what they can’t let go of.

Adultery, divorce, and single motherhood are explored in The Good Fight when the newly divorced mother of a 3-year old meets an old friend who shares the same lust for 20-year olds that her ex-husband did. And, in After Rosa Parks, a single mother struggling with her kindergartener who hates school, begins to realize that “people who tell you what to do – no matter what reasons they claim – are performing an act of aggression.”

Most people never know what goes on in a marriage but Desaulniers exposes the emotional nuances in The Next Day where an overly attentive newlywed fails to see how one bad decision exposes the fragility of a partnership that is supposed to last forever. And, in Never, Ever, Always, a young woman married three years to a controlling man learns that certain words should never be spoken:  “Never say never…One, it’s sentimental. Two, it’s dangerous. And three, it’s always a lie.”

People say that time heals all wounds but the emotional injury of losing a child is never healed. In Everyone is Wearing a Hat, a mother who recently lost her 8-year old son contemplates the irony of having a physically strong husband who always made her feel protected and yet was powerless to save their son; and in Mothers Without Children, the reader is a fly on the wall in a support group for mothers who have had their children taken from them by vindictive ex-husbands.

Most women couldn’t fathom the thought of ever leaving their children for a man but in Real Love and Roll, the author writes about women who put men first at the expense of their children, neglecting and abandoning them for the attention of men who aren’t worthy of their love.

Many of the stories are heartbreaking because they show the vulnerability of children who continue to trust the one person who breaks their heart, and that is what makes the book such a powerful short story collection.

The problem with people like us is not that we think all the fresh-faced, smiling, well-brought up people aren’t what they appear to be. Oh no, the problem is we think they are. That’s the problem.

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