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July 8, 2015

“The Lovers Set down Their Spoons”

by Anne Paddock

They weave through the tables – their rain coats billowing out behind them like the kites you and I flew on that terrible day that began our love. Your kite kept wrapping around mine, and at first I thought it was sweet, but eventually mine nosedived into the sand.

In 2014, the Iowa Short Fiction Award was given to Heather A Slomski for The Lovers Who Set Down Their Spoons, a collection of 15 short stories that are thought-provoking, captivating, and haunting. Themes of love, loss and regret are heavily emphasized with symbolism and metaphors used to convey the message in the narratives that vary in length from 2-29 pages.

Withhold preliminary judgement of the 2-page stories (some readers may incorrectly conclude these are filler material) because one of the most powerful stories in the collection is the shortest – the Blue Door – a descriptive essay about a girl who knocks on a man’s front door to bring him an orange while the reader takes in all the scenery within the vision of the two main characters. By the last sentence, the reader feels like she is part of the story which is what makes Slomski such a great writer.

The_Lovers_Set_Down_Their_SpoonsThere is the story Silhouette in which neighbors in an apartment building are transfixed on the lovers whose silhouette is in a window. In Slomski’s work, the reader is the voyeur but also the confidant who simply listens and doesn’t judge, and therefore, has everything to gain. These are the stories to read in the waiting room of a doctor’s office when a quick dose of fiction is needed.

Most relationships and marriages are based on a mutual understanding of fidelity – a state that many people don’t believe is possible or a realistic part of human nature – but, nonetheless is held sacred by many. When one partner succumbs to lust but blows off the significance of his indiscretion in The Lovers Who Set Down Their Spoons, the reader feels the emotional impact on the scorned partner, who narrates the story that seems to seethe like a boiling pot of water with the lid on. In another story entitled Women, we hear an elderly woman tell a young woman, who is in a relationship with her son, the ways of both her son and her husband – which only a woman with experience would know.

There is a saying about grief having two parts: the loss that brings grief and the remaking of a life that takes grief away  – an idea that takes hold in many of the short stories in this collection. In Iris and the Inevitable Sorrow, or The Knock at the Door, the reader is introduced to Iris and her fiancé, Stephan, two Americans who recently opened a bookstore in a cosmopolitan European city. When Iris returns from the post office one day to find a note from Stephan saying that he has met someone and left, leaving her to run the bookstore and live in their apartment alone, the challenge is for Iris to move through grief, a process not easily accomplished.

In A Seat at the Table, two young girls notice a young widow spending her days in a cafe drinking espresso. Upon seeing her despair, the girls – wise beyond their years – contemplate asking the widow to join them for dinner, knowing that not all people are able to move forward with their lives after a traumatic loss. And, in The Chair, the reader sees that loss is not limited to people but also to things that hold meaning or memories.

There is also loss associated with regret and missed opportunities – the theme in Correction where a woman looks back with sorrow on a hasty decision made in her youth. But, the story that grabs a reader’s heart – Before the Story Ends –  is a narrative told to an unborn child of how her parents meet, fall in love, marry and prepare for her arrival. In this story,  the depths of a mother’s love for a child she has yet to hold in her arms is felt in every single sentence.

Sometimes things are not what they appear to be, which is the case in three of the short stories: The Neighbors, The Allure of All This, and Adrift. In each of these stories, the author reveals the disturbing world of the mentally ill and those unaware of being within the midst of a world that is both strange and frightening. Readers of these stories will never look at their strange neighbors, weird store clerks, or the eccentric long lost friends of spouses the same ever again.

And, then there are the stories that touch the reader in other ways. In Rescue, the author shows us what happens when dreams take hold of our fears, while Octaves is a powerful story about people not hearing each other and how insignificant sound is when it comes to really listening.

One of the most unusual stories in the collection is A Fulfilling Life which takes place in Salamanca, Spain, a university town about 120 miles west of Madrid. A rich, captivating city, Salamanca attracts thousands of students – both domestic and international – making the city a diverse environment in which to live, study, and work. In this story, the reader meets Mac, a 40-year old student who has been living in Salamanca for the past year as he works on writing a novel while carrying on a friendship with a young woman named Carina. When Carina’s sister, Leda comes to town to visit, the lines defining the relationships start to disappear.

The Lovers Who Set Down Their Spoons is one of the best short story collections I’ve ever read. Each story seems to have been so carefully crafted that I kept wanting more. But like all good things, the stories ran out and I, along with other readers will have to wait until Heather Slomski publishes her next book, which according to her website is a novel to be called The Starlight Ballroom, which takes place in Krakow and tells the fictional story of the lives of her paternal grandparents.

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