Book Review

We like to think we know ourselves. Yes, life is a journey, a labored path to self-discovery—yada, yada, yada—yet we cling to the belief that at any moment we can press pause, take stock, place a stake in the ground and say, This is me. I might change tomorrow, but for the moment at least, this is me.

Carla Panciera’s collection of short stories, Bewildered, winner of the Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction, makes no bones about the fact that such assertions are inherently wrong. In fact, our understanding of ourselves is limited because we exist, first and foremost, in relationship to others. As a result, we can only know ourselves as well as we know other people, which is to say, very little. The more others confound us, the more ephemeral is our own self-understanding. This reality causes no small amount of frustration and confusion for Panciera’s cast of characters, who struggle to claim control of their circumstances, who are desperate to thrust that stake into the ground.

In “It Can’t Be This Way Everywhere,” Ruth, a middle-aged woman, believes she can become the caregiver her husband needs as he begins his slow descent into Alzheimer’s: “Why did people doubt her? A PhD, two children, a book deal later. What did it take, really, to convince people you had everything under control?”

Likewise in “End of Story,” Colin, who has left his wife because she was unfaithful, is unable to hear the mitigating circumstances that led to the deceit, so convinced is he that life and its inhabitants must follow scripted rules and expectations: “‘You cheated,’ he said. ‘End of story.’” Even when he discovers that it really is not that simple, his response is to create a new script, one so carefully crafted he can ensure he will not be hurt again.

Panciera’s range of characters is impressive. Her protagonists run the gamut from insecure adolescent girls to disillusioned middle-aged men, while her supporting players are young, old, gay, straight, dreamers, and realists. Vivid, authentic details give you the sense that you have seen all these folks before, perhaps have even been them at one time or another.

In “Singing Donkeys, Happy Families,” a misfit mother living among a group of have-it-all-together moms, watches her young children head into school: “Their hair resembled nests of long-departed sparrows. Their noses ran unchecked and no carabiners of antibacterial gel swung from their backpacks.”

Panciera also makes particularly good use of dialogue in creating her characters, often attributing to them styles of speech or catchphrases that reveal insights into their personalities and into underlying themes of the stories themselves. In the opening story, “All of a Sudden,” Albinna, a young and awkward girl with no real friends, often misuses words, sometimes to comic effect. Her catchphrase is “all of a sudden.” and at one point in history class says aloud, “All of a sudden, Jefferson comes in with an extra wig, says, hey mister, wear this. And while you’re at it, quit infridgement on their pursuit of happiness.”

In “No Sooner,” the main character’s mother-in-law, Rita, also has a signature phrase she uses before stating a veiled criticism that she never fully completes. She says to her daughter-in-law, “I would no sooner give my kids that much sugar…” and then trails off.

The idea of being criticized and judged permeates these stories. In spite of Panciera’s characters’ attempts at control, they quickly discover they are at the mercy not only of their close relationships, but of the judgment of actual or would-be witnesses to their behavior. In the collection’s title story, “Bewildered,” Ben Oates seems to have it all: a beautiful wife, a beautiful home and a successful career. In fact, when he takes the time to assess this, “he acknowledges he’s lucky and spends his life trying to atone for it.” But this perfection is a façade. When his wife disappears, he does not report it as he does not know “how people react to such things,” and he does not want to get it wrong. When his new neighbor, a police officer, greets him on the street, Ben is nervous, and his first thought, in spite of his missing wife, is that he “doesn’t want to appear unjolly. He’s never been accused of snobbery. He received his earliest accolade winning a Brotherhood poster contest in third grade.”

Panciera’s narrative voice is expansive as she writes effectively in first-person, third-person, and even second-person points of view. “Having Your Italy,” however, the only story written in second person, is also the only story that slowed down the steady narrative pace that Panciera had created up to that point. Perhaps because of the use of second person, the story reads more like a poem, and I found myself needing to sort through who was speaking and which events were flashbacks or just part of the primary narrative. On its own, “Having Your Italy” is a captivating story, but as part of the collection it feels self-conscious and not in keeping with the rest of the collection.

This minor distraction aside, Bewildered is a wonderfully crafted collection of stories that raises important questions about what it means to be in the world and suggests that the answers might just surprise us. Indeed, in the final story, “On Being Lonely and Other Theories,” Jon Olvey, a man who thought he understood his life and was prepared to reject it, and who now stands precariously close to losing his wife and family, discovers with some amazement that “he was desperate to please her, stunned at his attachment to his life.”

The characters in Bewildered may never fully understand or control who they ultimately are, but Panciera’s stories suggest that this is really not the goal. We place our stake in the ground not to say, This is who I am, but only This is me in relationship to others. Like the proverbial tree in the forest, if we fall, it doesn’t matter if we make a noise if there is no one there to hear us.

About the Reviewer

Susan Donnelly Cheever is an English teacher and poet. She lives in Concord, Massachusetts.