Book Review

In a classroom, around the turn of the century, some writers and a professor gathered to dissect an early draft of a story. The professor asked the group, “What happens? Where’s the end?” The writers gave competing opinions until the author finally said, “We don’t know. That’s the point.” The beleaguered professor tossed a pair of readers on the desk, rubbed a temple, and said, “Forget ambiguity. Stories should be complex.”

As bumper-sticker-sized philosophies go, I’ve seen worse. Teasing ambiguity from complexity can help distinguish a “sounds good” ending from a meaningful one. But the advice leaves out this: stories are pulled from life. And when we’re in the thick of it, our worlds are uncertain. Reality is complex, and our perceptions are often ambiguous.

Karin Cecile Davidson’s collection The Geography of First Kisses dives fearlessly into the thick of life, swims through all of its complex ambiguity, and surfaces with moments of crystalline clarity. The cumulative effect of these fourteen stories is best described in “Bobwhite,” when a girl looks back on learning of a parent’s death: “Carly understood there had been a color to that Sunday morning in Picayune, Mississippi. She considered its twist and texture, how it wrapped itself around her thoughts.” These stories do exactly that—each has a color whose texture twists and wraps inextricably around the mind to linger.

Part of their resonance lies in Davidson’s gorgeous, quote-worthy prose, which surprises while it immerses. In the first paragraph of the collection’s namesake story, a young woman, “bored beyond dreaming,” relates an odyssey of sexual experiences. Her first is with Leon, whose blond hair and voice are “like honeycomb, thick and golden and crowded, the waxen chambers, the echo in her chest.” Davidson harnesses sound, texture, image—even a hint of taste and scent in those few words. Davidson’s imagery shimmers, dreamlike. In “If You Ask Them Nicely,” one cousin hunts unsuccessfully for minnows while the other, May, lies in the water and invites them:

Around her, minnows gather, slowly swimming into the spaces at the crooks of her elbows, the curve of her neck. Bright little fish, they surround May’s body, encircling her shape, another May entirely. A cerulean, flitting, opaquely fishlike May.

That shimmering quality, a dose of the surreal, is present in the stories’ events, too. A woman from West Texas inexplicably tosses a pig across a bar in “Sweet Iowa.” In “The Last I Saw Mitsou,” a courtyard’s entrances mysteriously fill with books. But even in the story that flirts most with the magical, “In the Great Wide,” wherein faces of apostles appear on bowling pins, we’re always tethered to familiar worlds. The stories are set in Maine, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Ohio, Florida, Mississippi, and at the Berlin Zoo. Places whose names aren’t disclosed are made just as distinct, marked by broken pottery or crushed oyster shells. Eras are cemented in references to music and film, a perfect choice for a cinematic collection that sings on the page.

The combination of the surreal and the familiar serves to highlight the weird, off-kilter perceptions we experience during times of loss, which is a frequent motif in The Geography of Kisses. Parents desert children; spouses leave spouses. People live in the wake of whole families swept away by storms and floodwaters and wars. Characters’ abandonment often manifests as a loss of self, as in “Skylight,” when a woman left by a so-so lover conjures an imaginary Gus Van Sant for company. Gus, we’re told, “knows how to take care of a girl so that she’ll stop disappearing, like smoke, like perfume.”

Absence, loss, disappearance—these things haunt us, and the stories in The Geography of First Kisses do, too. But even when they’re heart-wrenching, they’re never maudlin. The stories are filled with delight, beauty, and amazement.

And then there are the endings. I suspect one more reason these tales cling and echo so well is found in their denouements. What will happen after the last sentence is a question, a fate left deftly teetering. Without giving too much away, in my (current) favorite of the collection, “The Biker and the Girl,” the final sentence stares back from the page at a moment when I’m so desperate to know what comes next, I can’t make myself turn the page. Why do that to readers? Why leave us suspended? An answer comes just prior to the end, when we see “the possibility of something else, imbalanced and imperfect, no better than distance and dying stars.” The story dwells in that space before hindsight can deem events inevitable—where possibility persists.

After that? We don’t know. And that’s the point.

About the Reviewer

Chris Harding Thornton, a seventh-generation Nebraskan, holds an MFA from the University of Washington and a PhD from the University of Nebraska, where she has taught courses in writing and literature. Her first novel, Pickard County Atlas (MCD/FSG), was chosen by author Tana French (In the Woods, The Searcher) as a PBS Masterpiece Best Mystery of 2021. The book was also featured in the Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker, and the New York Times. It was released in paperback (Picador) and appeared in German translation (Polar Verlag) in 2022. Her second novel, Little Underworld (MCD/FSG), is slated for release in March 2024.