In Debra Spark’s latest book, The Pretty Girl, the quotidian and the fantastic collide. As though Raymond Carver wrote science fiction, Spark gives her readers deep insights into the mundane sadness of the human condition—and then, in the last story of the collection, throws in a miniature rabbi who dispenses wisdom despite being encased in a chocolate egg since sometime after World War II.
In the novella-length title story, a girl becomes entranced by a painting in her great aunt’s apartment. Over the decades the painting is a touchstone as she enters her relative’s space, defined by lonesomeness—and the glamour of having been a single working girl in New York City. As the great aunt lapses into an inelegant decline and death, the narrator researches the painting and uncovers a family secret so airtight even her own mother doesn’t know it. Via this haunting story (which rewards multiple reads), we’re asked to speculate about what constitutes a well-lived existence and why the narrator might have exulted that, after all, great-aunt Rose did have a life.
Spark, professor of English, flawlessly shifts gears, bringing us to disparate settings—Victorian-era London, Switzerland, Cambridge, Massachusetts—that connect because of the self-conscious characters struggling to find meaning in their circumscribed lives. Her gentle humor helps allay their overarching sense of alienation. Another shared thread is their identity as Jews, from kids who watch Shalom Sesame videos to a schizophrenic artist who draws Hasidic men. The shadow of Shoah can be dimly seen on each story’s wallpaper.
But one of the most unexpected, and delightful, bonds is a quirky repetition of certain concepts. In these stories, three people have visited Switzerland, two have worked as art conservators, several have been policemen. Let’s just say, any book with two cheese makers deserves special scrutiny. These references provide a little jolt and make the reader stop to consider, “Wait! Were these the same people? The one who stayed in the B&B and the one who married the guy from the Métro?” Overall they impart disjointed coherence, because the coincidences aren’t meaningful, but random, like life.
None of the people who so convincingly populate these tales seem happy (the one with the best shot gets foreboding news on her wedding day), but, regardless, there’s great pleasure in reading such careful, precise prose. With economical narration and dead-on dialogue, Spark makes us care for these wounded souls. Her motif of seeking someone to truly listen to you argues that if we can’t control the bitterness of events, we can find comfort in talking about them. Says one character, “Everybody she knew wanted their life to be a stepping-stone to something else, and no one was happy where they landed. And what of it? That was life. It didn’t matter really. Or it wouldn’t matter if only there were someone to talk to about it.”