by Lisa Peet
In an age of ubiquitous self-revelation, I consider myself discreet: I don’t gossip, don’t share intimate information—mine or others’—in public places. The idea of discussing my physical or mental health, or personal, professional, or financial struggles, with anyone other than close friends or family feels wrong. I know many do so gladly in the name of openness, destigmatization, and shining a light on our underlying commonalities. That’s fine.
Me, I don’t even want to fill in my relationship status on Facebook.
But this doesn’t mean I’m not interested in other people’s.
A quick and unscientific survey of my Friends, for instance, reveals that most married people identify as married. Beyond that it falls off steeply: a few show up as single or in a relationship, one or two as divorced (many more actually are), one friend as widowed. And, for whatever reasons, no one in my Friend universe has checked off “It’s complicated.”
And what does that mean, anyway? I imagine various possibilities involving too many words for a pull-down menu—a nonexclusive relationship, or maybe an unrequited one, or a breakup that has lasted way past its expiration date.
But really, if we’re talking about relationships, doesn’t “It’s Complicated” apply to everyone? Of course it’s complicated—relationships with lovers, spouses, friends, enemies, parents, children, siblings, coworkers, neighbors. The complexity of human bonds is endlessly fascinating; this is why we tell stories, and why we read them.
Telling them well, though—doing justice to the endless entanglements we navigate every day—calls for emotional intelligence and a steady hand. Debuting with her first book of stories You Should Pity Us Instead (Sarabande) at age 45, Amy Gustine answers that call and demonstrates a deep respect for those complications.
Each story in You Should Pity Us Instead approaches then strips away the cliché at the center of a relationship—the insufficiently parented child, the unfaithful husband, the obsessively fearful new mother, the black son of a white adoptive family—replacing it with something finely tuned and delicate. And yet there is nothing ephemeral about Gustine’s characters. Each exists in careful balance to their partners, antagonists, and kin, but at the same time their integrity shines, unshakeable.
“In order to even begin writing I’ve got to have some sense of there being an irresolvable complexity, even contradiction, in the story,” says Gustine. “It’s unpacking the contradiction and nuance through the events and the dialogue that makes writing intriguing. Consistency and singularity are boring.”
Thus you have Sarah in “Half-Life,” a 22-year-old nanny only recently aged out of the foster care system who is trying to work out what she needs to know as an adult through the children she cares for. Or Spencer, from the story “Goldene Medene,” an Ellis Island intake doctor whose recent heartbreak clouds his judgment about the immigrants whose lives he holds in his hands.
Or Shayla and Mike in “Prisoners Do,” two doctors engaged in an extramarital affair for whom nothing is simple: Mike is the caretaker for his disabled wife and three young daughters; Shayla’s mother has metastatic brain cancer. Locked in their respective orbits, the titular prisoners circle ever closer but their paths never align. Gustine takes their measure as they cycle through the messiness of desire, envy, disaffection.
His daughter had sounded very sweet, and that simple exchange they had—“Is your Dad home?” “Sure, may I tell him who’s calling?”—had brought her heart into her throat and Shayla didn’t know why. She really, truly had been fine with no kids. Was still, when she thought about it, fine. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was something else.
These are grownup stories. The author’s powers of perception and empathy have been honed over a lifetime. Gustine’s parents divorced when she was young, and both sets of grandparents stepped in to help raise her—growing up she felt, she said, that she had six parents and four households, each with its own rules and mores.
“Without being aware of it, my sister and I learned how to fit in with each one. Jokes you might make to my dad wouldn’t be okay with my grandparents. Shows that Grandma might watch with us, like a soap opera, wouldn’t be approved of by Dad. Sometimes I think juggling four different microcultures, as well as the culture of our private Catholic school, which was yet again very different from our home cultures, is what created a certain fascination with families, with relationships, and a certain empathetic imagination.”
Always a reader, Gustine found books to be a perfect portable comfort. “When you move from house to house all week every week, and you don’t have your own bedroom,” she explains, “a book is a marvelous little thing that you can carry easily. You can just about live in it.” She read everything from Little Women to the Trixie Belden series to James Michener and V.C. Andrews (the latter two were lying around her grandparents’ houses) and, in high school, the Russians—Tolstoy, and even more so Dostoevsky—and Milan Kundera.
Gustine always considered herself a writer, she says, typing at an old metal desk in her grandmother’s basement. She wrote on weekends while working full-time after attending the University of Michigan, then earned an MFA at Bowling Green State University when her daughter was a toddler. When her son was born four years later, she stayed home with him for the first year and then started him in daycare and began writing full-time.
“Even though I knew I shouldn’t, sometimes I felt self-indulgent sending them off while I wrote,” she admits. “If I’d been getting a regular paycheck for the work, I doubt I would have felt that way. I did my best to ignore those feelings and push ahead.”
“There were dry spells and productive periods,” Gustine adds. You Should Pity Us Instead gathers stories written over 15 years, most published one at a time in literary journals beginning with “An Uncontaminated Soul” when she was 35.
Two stories, “The River Warta” and “Goldene Medene” ((a title that needs to be spoken out loud with the proper Yiddish inflection, GOLdeneh MEDeneh), were pulled from a collection of linked fiction based on her family’s immigrant experience at the turn of the century, which she began at Bowling Green; the rest emerged gradually. “I chose those to include based on two criteria: how much I liked them and whether or not they seemed to fit a family or parent-child relationship theme.” And as every one of us knows, family relationships are invariably complicated.
Take even a straightforward setup like a mother and an absent, beloved son. “All the Sons of Cain” opens the collection with palpable tension, a crowd of anonymous protestors milling outside a grieving woman’s bedroom:
After they find out where she lives, they start coming every week, sometimes every day. Wednesday morning they come especially early, waking her. R’s mother stays in bed, yearning for coffee and the bathroom, but fearful of nearing the window.
Her son, a young Israeli soldier captured by Hamas, has been turned into the conflict’s literal poster child, his photograph hoisted on their placards: “Sometimes they use him to protest another prisoner trade, sometimes to support it; sometimes to urge settlements, other times to condemn those already built.” His mother believes him dead. But when he turns up on the television news in a video, claiming to have converted to Islam and holding a recently dated newspaper, she grabs a change of clothes and a handful of old photographs and departs for Gaza to find him. Here, as throughout the book, Gustine shows her flair for painting a simultaneously interior and exterior portrait—micro and macro—with the same strokes:
As her plane descends into Cairo’s International Airport, R’s mother looks down on the glittering high-rises lining the Nile’s shore, then inland, to the raw-concrete worker’s homes, squatting in twilight. To the east is the City of the Dead, crumbling, necropolitan mustards, and to the west the dark, ancient deserts of Giza’s tombs, so singular and grand they strike her not as burial plots, but as alien settlements. Everywhere there are minarets, looking from above like missiles.
R’s mother doesn’t succeed on her mission. Instead, she finds other sons, and other mothers; a 13-year-old boy from the street who alternately taunts her and aids her, a young girl whose difficult birth she helps with in the back of a dark house. Still, this is not a heartwarming story of shared humanity. There is no great equalizing blanket of motherhood, or longing, or need. This is in fact a recurring pattern in the complications of Gustine’s characters’ lives: what could serve as a common thread and, in a simpler version of the world, bring them together, more often drives them apart.
Gustine’s characters’ relationship to faith—as a common language, a redemptive power—is, like all other relationships in Gustine’s stories, complicated. In the book’s title story Molly, the wife of an academic who has written a Christopher Hitchens–like polemic against religion, moves with her family from Berkeley to her Ohio hometown, where her husband, Simon, has taken a position as chair of a philosophy department. Soon she realizes that their publicly atheist beliefs are in a stark minority. Once Simon’s book has been featured in a newspaper article, they also find that “invites to card nights and progressive dinners have dried up and the girls have been skipped over for several birthday parties and sleepovers.”
Molly’s relationship to her own faith, or lack of it, is complicated both by her desire for community—for herself, for her daughters—and the fact that her beloved grandfather, whom she visits daily, is growing frail. “Everybody’s going to die,” her husband tells the girls, but this isn’t enough of an answer for any of them. The question of where faith fits into this puzzle hangs over them all; even its absence is couched in the language of belief:
One day she looks up from her book and sees that the elm’s ten thousand pods, which blanketed the gardens in late May, have sprouted. Somehow this mindless, unwanted propagation makes being lonely okay. Even in the form of a plant, the world has violence and invasion at its core. Being lonely is the least you can expect. It’s so light a disappointment, it almost counts as a blessing.
Perhaps because of her Catholic upbringing, the spiritual questions Gustine’s characters ask wear a well-worn luster. “When We’re Innocent,” for instance, while not explicitly religious, is a story of the complications that come with (or without) belief: culpability, guilt, and the ways we grant each other mercy. Obi, who has come to Phoenix to clean out his daughter Jolly’s apartment, doesn’t know if her death by overdose was accidental or a suicide. Brian, who lives next door and is awaiting a trial on rape charges, is unsure of whether—or perhaps unwilling to admit that—the sex with a woman he met online was non-consensual. The two sit in Brian’s apartment, crushed by their unanswered questions, able to offer each other sympathy but not salvation.
“What am I going to tell her mother?” [Obi] bleated, bowing his head and pinching the bridge of his nose until his knuckles went white. “She had to have a reason.”
“Tell her it was my fault,” Brian said. “Tell her Jolly lived next door to a depraved soul unworthy of her, and if he’d only been a better man, Jolly would still be here.”
The state of loneliness—when relationships have gone awry or missing—is layered with complications as well. Lavinia, in “An Uncontaminated Soul,” is, bluntly, a cat lady. Widowed, living in her late mother’s house next door to her nemesis, the hostile and meddlesome old man Pultwock, she shares her cat-food-slippery, piss-smelling home with 56 cats; her granddaughter is no longer allowed to visit.
But love is love, and Lavinia—actually Mary, a lover of literature who renamed herself after “Emily Dickinson’s sister who liked cats”—is alternately convivial and achingly tender with her feline charges. After rescuing two newborn kittens from a hot car,
she pinches their flesh and rubs her finger along their gums. Each is a bit sticky, so she sets up the humidifier in her bedroom, shooing out all the other cats, and installs the kittens in a box lined with sheepskin car-seat covers from the towed Olds.
In the kitchen Lavinia warms milk, corn oil, salt, and egg yolks on the stove, then feeds each kitten with a doll’s bottle. Afterward, she massages their genitals with a warm, moist cotton ball and they relieve themselves in her palm. She prefers to do it that way at first, so she can be sure who did what and how much.
Her story doesn’t end well. But in the process of pulling at our hearts, Gustine also asks something of us: that we not only rethink the dismissive trope of “cat lady,” but also that of the angry old man who eventually calls the Humane Society on her. In his catless loneliness, Pultwock—whose mien is as abrasive as his name, but whose own heartache the reader catches just a glimpse of—may be even more desperate for love than she.
“You should pity us who have no faith. We’re lonely and anxious,” says Molly to her fellow Midwestern mothers in an attempt at lightheartedness. The truth being, of course, that we are, all of us, lonely and anxious in our unending search for connection amidst messy, imperfect lives.
“It might go back to the issue of contradiction,” Gustine admits. “I don’t believe in purity. There’s good in bad and bad in good. There are no easy, straightforward situations or solutions.”
Its title to the contrary, You Should Pity Us Instead is a book distinctly devoid of pity. Gustine treats her characters—and thus her readers—with dignity and compassion. Our complications, she demonstrates with each story, may drive us and often damage us, but they’re important.
“All meaning seems to derive from connection to others and all connection requires caretaking, inevitably leading to a conflict between duty and pleasure,” she says. “So to live a meaningful life we must at some point sacrifice pleasure. That’s a paradox: to feel pleased we must not be pleased all the time.”
True, it’s complicated. But, Gustine wants us to see, it couldn’t—and shouldn’t—be any other way.
Lisa Peet is associate news editor at Library Journal, proprietor of the literary blog Like Fire, and a card-carrying bloomer herself.
Click here to read Lisa Peet’s previous features