Now You Know It All, winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, reads more like a collection of very small novels than a collection of stories, given the breadth, depth, and twists in each offering. It’s not that these tales feel like stories that want to be novels—they are decidedly and perfectly what they should be—but that they dip, swoop, and reveal their secrets more like novels. It might be somewhat common for a surprise at the end of a story—a revelation the author has hidden for narrative effect—but it’s rarer to see several such surprises peppered throughout a story.
A perfect example of such twistiness is the opening story, “Rome.” At nineteen pages, it does a lot with a little. Lindsay, an American college student in Rome, tells us the story in first-person. Midway through the trip, she’s already nearly sick with the magnificence of her travels: “We’d seen so much beauty by then we’d been rendered insensate to it, like gorging on sweets to the point of sickness, or until one tastes nothing at all.” She’s interacting with fellow traveler Paul, a man who “repulses” her and who she repulses in return, although back home they were bonded by their loneliness, consoling themselves with “a shared sense of grievance that had proven an excellent homing device.”
Although it initially seems this relationship will be the heart of the story, Pearson veers as Lindsay heads out on a daytrip to Tivoli to escape Paul and ends up on a tour with the Gooleys, a large family whose women wear “the long blue skirts of pioneer women.” From the get-go the family seems odd—the “Laura Ingalls Wilder-style” braids, the middle-aged mother with the elderly face and “round, taut belly,” the homeschool vibe of the kids. The oldest daughter, Martha, gloms onto Lindsay for the tour and it seems now this will be the focus: how Lindsay will mentor this child who mentions that “the baby needs a miracle”—“the baby,” Lindsay assumes, referring to the mother’s stomach.
But as the story continues, we learn Lindsay’s history with Paul: they were not romantically involved, but did sleep together when Paul learned his mother was sick. After they had sex, Paul was immediately terrified that Lindsay was pregnant. Lindsay later told him in the cruelest way that her period had arrived, and he was equally cruel back. As the tour comes to an end and a sick Mrs. Gooley explains it’s liver cancer swelling her stomach, Lindsay realizes the baby might be Martha’s and a result of abuse by her father. Not trusting her suspicions, Lindsay lets Martha go, but there’s another big revelation coming: Lindsay lied to Paul (and us) about getting her period and knows her birth control pills have sat unused on her dresser in America; the baby Paul fears may be a reality.
As you can see, there’s a lot going on, but here’s where Pearson shines: it never feels like too much in the reading; rather it’s like layers of paint creating depth and shadow: Mrs. Gooley’s bloated stomach echoes both a pregnancy and the illness of Paul’s mother; Martha’s possible pregnancy mirrors the lack of clarity and imminent danger Lindsay must also live with; the relationship with Paul is understood, and then not understood, and then understood in a way he cannot know. Each turn has that whoosh of surprise readers are more accustomed to in a novel, where a big revelation is possible after a long buildup, or where information can remain hidden in pockets of a longer narrative.
Story after story holds these elements of surprise—whole worlds and novel-like complications emerge within twenty-some pages—and each contains a multitude of plots and subplots. “The Films of Roman Polanski” features a woman who works in child and family services, a client she calls Devil Boy, the complicated relationship with a partner whose love language scares her, and, of course, Roman Polanski references. “Boy in the Barn” weaves together family lore from a generation past, a boy locked up on the neighboring property, drugs, and violence, all presented in a frame narrative that has the main character courting oblivion at a bar. Another wonderful story, “Mr. Forble,” concerns a man hired from the dark web to incite violence at a thirteen-year-old’s birthday party. The story presents such surprising shifts in perspective that the reader is left a bit winded.
Pearson also has a knack for dealing with social issues without feeling preachy, opportunistic, or too on-the-nose. “Dear Shadows” has a magazine writer looking back on a sexual relationship with a now semi-famous musician in a different life, and the kicker is that she resists seeing it as anything other than consensual because of what she otherwise would have to face not only about him, but also about herself. “Riding,” about a virus resulting in quarantine, is so creepy, threatening, and realistic that readers can’t help but see their own world laid over it. “Darling” is the story of a girl who is groomed by a Ghislaine-Maxwell-like woman for a man much like Jeffrey Epstein. From the girl’s point of view, the exploitive adults “felt almost like parents to her, strange parents, yes, but parents all the same.” It’s a psychology or pathology I hadn’t known I wanted to understand, laid out in terms that make troubling sense:
The secret, of course, is that if a woman asks another woman in just the right way, she will do things. That is, if she has earned your trust. If she has leaned over you, motherly, stroking hair from your forehead, if she has spooned broth into your feverish lips, if she’s brought you fresh packets of ice, her voice soothing, her face attentive. A girl can be lulled into almost anything.
Given the character depths she mines, it’s perhaps not surprising to learn that Pearson holds an MD from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and now works as a psychiatrist. These stories feel in many ways like the most illuminating of therapy sessions as she leads you, the reader and patient, to your next big understanding.
About the Reviewer
Erin Flanagan’s novel Blackout is forthcoming in July 2022 with Thomas & Mercer. She is the author of Deer Season (University of Nebraska Press), a 2022 Edgar nominee for Best New Novel by an American Author, as well as two story collections. Erin contributes regular book reviews to Publishers Weekly and other venues, and is an English professor at Wright State University. For more information, visit her website, or say hello on Twitter at @erinlflanagan.