On Thin Ice: Short Stories of Life and Dating After 50, by Johanna van Zanten

The title is a bit misleading since these linked short stories about a woman named Adrienne start when she is 28. However, they do follow her into her 50s, and they are about finding love and finding a place for herself in the world. And I do mean the world. It's refreshing to read stories set in locales ranging from Amsterdam to the south of France to Canada's Northwest Territories.

What I've learned from participating in critique groups and my poetry discussion group, as well as from writing this blog, is how very different people's tastes are, and even how different mine are depending on my mood and the circumstances. Sometimes I want an exciting thriller; sometimes a puzzle to work out. But sometimes I want something less challenging. The easy flow of van Zanten's narrative was the perfect thing for a long day of travel, changing flights and enduring layovers in listless airports.

As I say, the narrative flow is good, and the voice interesting, if mild. The stories contain some unusual events such as a canoe trip on the mighty McKenzie River to attend a Native American pow wow. But mostly the stories catalogue the ups and downs of an ordinary life: love found and lost, the death of a parent, difficulties with teenaged children. I particularly enjoyed the humorous story about Adrienne's adventures with starting a matchmaking business.

There is a curious evenness of tone which under other circumstances might not have held my attention, but provided the restful interludes I needed during that long, difficult day. The lack of strong dramatic ups and downs building to a climax in part comes from the preponderance of narration. The stories are narrated in a calm and assured voice, with a few half-scenes (narration interrupted with some lines of dialogue). Where there are fully dramatised scenes, they tend to be mostly dialogue without the actions and reactions that ratchet up the dramatic emotion. Actions, as the cliché goes, speak louder than words.

To understand the difference between narration and scene, consider Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie where Tom stands at the edge of the stage narrating the story, and then he stops and is silent while Laura, her mother, and the Gentleman Caller actually act out a scene. The percentage of narration to scene has changed over time. Lengthy narrative passages are common in the 19th century novels I grew up on. These days, perhaps due to the influence of movies, most novels tend to minimize narration and go from scene to scene. The writer's challenge is to find the correct balance of narration, scene, and half-scene for the particular story she is telling.

Although at first I was disconcerted by the absence of the dramatic structure I've come to expect, this collection of stories turned out to be the ideal thing for me on that particular day, and I enjoyed the quietly intelligent voice accompanying me on my travels.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a digital copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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