For years, I was convinced that I didn't like short stories. One too many forced marches through weighty anthologies had left me believing that the genre was limiting and vaguely unsatisfying. Thank goodness I persevered and found out just how powerful the medium can be in the right hands. A perfect example of this is Shout Her Lovely Name, the stunning debut collection by Natalie Serber.
Serber's short stories are sometimes sad, sometimes sweet, but always truthful and achingly familiar. They're connected by the theme of mother-daughter relationships in all their fierce, messy, elemental forms. The rich details conjured up memory after memory for me, from both sides of that relationship.
Eight of the eleven stories center on a woman named Ruby, whom we meet as she is visiting her parents after being away at college for the first time. She's trying to break away from her parents' sad relationship and her mother's apparent resignation to it, at one point blurting proudly, "I have a boyfriend now. He buys me flowers." She's convinced that her mother's fate will not be her own.
As the connected stories progress, Ruby finds herself pregnant and raising a daughter, Nora, on her own. The stories follow Ruby and young Nora: first as a young girl idolizing her mother, then beginning to see Ruby's failings through the eyes of others, then as a teenager looking for validation, and finally as a college student looking to break away herself.
In the story Plum Tree, Ruby tries to share her hard-earned wisdom and experiences with her teenage daughter, but Nora isn't listening: "She wanted to make her own new and unique mistakes. She was nothing like Ruby."
While I loved the Ruby/Nora storyline, my two favorite stories in the collection were outside that narrative. In the title story, "Shout Her Lovely Name," a mother describes, in journal format, her daughter's heartbreaking descent into an eating disorder. Serber manages to convey the mother's fear, anger, guilt and helplessness with an astonishing compassion, and even humor, that moved me deeply. In "This is So Not Me," a young mother trying to meet the expectations of her older husband displays unexpected strength.
Serber is skilled at creating a palpable sense of place and time as the stories move across the country and across decades. The highest compliment I can give the author, though, is that I went to bed after reading each night worried about these characters, as if they were people I knew. There wasn't a single character that I wouldn't want to read more about. Whatever form her next work takes, I'll be first in line to read it.
Read an excerpt from this book.
A native of Santa Cruz, California, Natalie Serber studied English and education in college, wanting to be either a teacher or a writer. After raising a family, she is now officially both. She lives in Portland, Oregon, teaching writing at several local universities and working on a new novel. Visit her website.
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