Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

Petites Suites

By Robert Wexelblatt

Reviewed By Nicholas Litchfield

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Distinguished fiction writer, essayist, and professor of humanities at Boston University, Robert Wexelblatt skillfully merges musical composition and creative writing to produce a highly inventive story collection that pulsates with melody, harmony, and rhythm. Wexelblatt, whose novel Zublinka Among Women won the Indie Book Awards first-place prize for fiction in 2008, is the author of three previous story collections. His newest, Petites Suites, draws inspiration from Debussy’s Petite Suite to create a series of concise, varied narratives that resemble the short movements of the French composition that was his blueprint.

The collection is comprised of twenty-two suites, with each suite containing three or four lean stories that are, mostly, unrelated to one another and can be read in any order without risk of marring any sense of thematic or tonal harmony. Each little piece in the suite also bears a pertinent musical title, written in French, indicating the instruments to perform them and offering intriguing hints about the theme and tone. “Duo Expérimental, Clopinant et Fâcheux, pour Clarinette et Bason” and “Marengo, L’Étalon Infructueux—Chaconne Nostalgique pour Gunbri Seul” are two of the many fanciful and sometimes amusing titles that function to denote the flavor of the story. When translated into English they become “Experimental Duet, Hobbling and Awkward, for Clarinet and Bassoon” and “Marengo, the Unsuccessful Stallion—Nostalgic Dance for Sintir Alone.”

The former is about a love affair that turns stale and the couple’s subsequent struggle to maintain a friendship while seeing other people, and the latter, a wryly-amusing tale of an old, impotent, discontented warhorse and his waning appeal among the pack of mares in his paddock. Where once these mares admired his war scars and showed interest in his exotic past, which saw him transported from Africa to the battlegrounds of France, now they routinely huddle together “casting contemptuous looks at him,” making him pine for his youth and remember his famous battles.

Throughout the collection, Wexelblatt flaunts his creative prowess by exploring all manner of topics and perspectives. Settings, periods, themes, and styles vary greatly, and the sheer quantity and quality of the stories are surprising. He also deftly transitions between movements, continually presenting an entirely new scenario and a different set of characters but making the stories in each suite feel as though they belong together. A fascinating story of a man born with four legs and zero arms is followed by a woman’s pride and guilt over her cosmetic surgery. The story of a car accident, suicide, and legal aspects concerning defective brake wheel cylinders is followed by the amusing tale of a GPS device with a mind of its own that is responsible for averting a tragedy and uniting a couple.

There is even a story (“Problém Final, Marche en Si-Mineur, pour Hautbois, Basson et Orchestre, Joyeux mais néanmoins Mysterieux”) featuring famed detective Sherlock Holmes who, once more, is pitted against his archnemesis Professor Moriarty. Here, the author confronts Holmes’s inexperience with the opposite sex by having him fall in love with Moriarty’s half sister. Holmes’s joy and preoccupation mark a triumph for Moriarty, who feels he has removed his greatest obstacle.

This potentially disastrous love affair is followed by a university student’s revealing class essay about her famous grandfather, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and his unsavory affair with a minor. Provocative and memorable, the author explores the prickly subject matter with great aplomb and highlights the pitfalls of looking too closely at revered figures.

Of all the many impressive pieces in the collection, “Écriture à Nègre: Basse-Danse en Do Dièse pour Flûte, Hautbois et Orchestre à Cordes—Mystérieuse et Aléatoire” (translated as “Ghost Writing: Bass Dance in C-D Sharp for Flute, Oboe and String Orchestra—Mysterious and Random”) is one of the best and most intriguing. It concerns the strange, posthumous blog of Charles, a fifty-four-year-old man, and his grieving girlfriend’s attempts to deal with the loss. Wishing to “hear again that prudent voice of his,” she reads the contents of his once-popular blog, which offers sage financial advice, only to discover new content posted with regularity. A long entry by him, days after his funeral, appears to offer his reflections on death:

When you’re aware in the middle of the earthquake that your life is taking a turn, you’re already starting to live in the aftermath. The crucial moment vanishes in the new condition which, for weal or woe, it’s initiated. You’ve set the future in motion just by thinking of it.

The subsequent mysterious series of blog posts, consisting of “bits of doggerel,” a “jaded Francophilic/phobic sonnet,” and almost meaningful dialogues, are written in such a way as to suggest they are intended for her. Although markedly different in tone and style, these reflective posts are at odds with the conservative opinions of the man she knew—a dependable, “congenially dull” man who was “parsimonious with insights.” Her reluctance to let go of Charles allows the posts to impact her emotionally, but they also provide a fine opportunity for some sense of closure.

Thought-provoking, entertaining, and eloquent, like so many of his stories in Petites Suites, you can’t help but marvel at Wexelblatt’s ability to move and enchant in just a few concise pages. This inspired and truly original story collection is an exquisite joy, offering the equivalent beauty and charm a fine symphony might accomplish.

Nicholas Litchfield is the founding editor of the literary magazine Lowestoft Chronicle, author of the suspense novel Swampjack Virus, and editor of seven literary anthologies. He has worked in various countries as a tabloid journalist, librarian, and media researcher. He writes regularly for the Colorado Review and his book reviews for the Lancashire Post are syndicated to twenty-five newspapers across the UK. He lives in western New York with his wife and two children.