A Perfect Stranger, by Roxana Robinson

I enjoy short stories, especially at times like these when my attention is a bit fractured. Just now about all I can handle is a powerful short story that can pull me in, tumble me about and let me go, as changed as the person in the story.

This is the first I've read Robinson's work, which was recommended to me by my local indie bookstore. Unsure what to expect, I steeled myself for pranks and allusions and metafictional games. But no. These stories stand four-square, solid and traditional. With great deliberation they capture my attention.

Most of the stories start with a single, declarative sentence: “That summer we rented a house in France, with friends.” No tricks, no mischief, just a simple statement of fact, yet plunging me into the story. Then it continues to draw me in, enticing me with evocative description:

. . . it was a long farmhouse of golden stone, with a faded orange tile roof. In front of it was a flat stretch of pale gravel, shaded by wide trees. The swimming pool was shimmering turquoise, surrounded by high green hedges; along the garden paths were cypress trees—cool, dark sentinels against a light-filled landscape.

These two quotes are from “Assez”, perhaps my favorite story in the book. The situation is not unusual: a woman hoping to use a summer away to regain her husband's interest, sharing a house with a couple who are their closest friends, Nina and John. What makes it stand out is the way Robinson makes me care so deeply, so immediately about these four people as they do ordinary holiday things: touring Roman ruins, shopping in the village, going out to dinner.

She does it with the detail, the bit of dialogue or description that is fresh and startling, like Steven returning from shopping and proudly stating that he has become “‘a man known to the locals.'” He explains that when he was leaving the vegetable shop and thanked the woman at the counter, as he always did, she not only thanked him back, but added:

“‘à demain.'” Steven looked at us all. “‘Until tomorrow'! She expects me!”
“‘Now that is a real accomplishment,” Nina said generously.

and she offers him one of the olives he's just brought home. A small thing, but the exchange delightfully suggests the friendship between the couples, the trust that can allow a playful boast and equally lighthearted praise. Yet the darkness is there, and Robinson masterfully manages the pace of the story to keep us shifting between the dark and the light.

I have read and reread these stories, at first just enjoying them, and then studying them. I admire the pieces—the pacing, the description, the dialogue, the characterization—but admire even more the way they are put together, the balance perhaps a little different from one story to the next, one a little heavier on action, another on reflection. I also like the different narrative voices: some protagonists are male, some female, a child, a teen, a middle-aged suburbanite.

Although they used to be popular, today's market wisdom is that people don't like to read short stories any more. Do you agree?

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