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book review

‘The News from Spain’ by Joan Wickersham

Yarek Waszul for the boston globe

This wise and courageous and often brilliant collection of stories, written in clean, precise prose, is not only a pleasure to read, but also breaks new ground in our perceptions of what a short story can be. Like William Trevor, who also expanded the boundaries of short fiction, Joan Wickersham writes about love in many varieties, but beware anyone who thinks they are going to read love stories with the proverbial happy ending.

What we have here is a meditation on what love can mean: the love expressed in “[t]he look right before you kiss the one person whose existence strikes you as both necessary and miraculous,” love filled with exhilaration and joy and hopes for a future; and also the love that leads to pain and loss and ultimate acceptance of something far less. Or maybe something far more? Wickersham lets you decide; she never judges, just tells these often convoluted tales in such a way that each story enhances the others, so that the whole is much greater than a mere sum of its parts.

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The ostensible link among them is the phrase: the news from Spain — which serves as the title of each piece and also appears in each. And although it may at first seem a contrivance, the different contexts in which it emerges in each tale create a resonance, and a sense of surprise that is captivating.

Moreover, it is a clue to Wickersham’s vision, which gives voices to people easily ignored: a man in his 50s who has forgotten what physical desire can feel like but who needs to marry, the young girl at boarding school confused by what is in plain sight and doesn’t understand she is being used, and the daughter who realizes that her mother is lovable in ways she never imagined and totally loses her footing when faced with her imminent death. And, in one of the most poignant stories, the widow of a race car driver who was killed young — a woman who has conquered alcoholism and is hanging on by her fingernails as a paid companion to a rich couple, yet has not lost her capacity for humor and self-awareness.

Some of the strongest stories take their inspiration from historical figures. We have the marvelous tale where Rosina and Elvira, from Mozart’s most famous operas, “The Marriage of Figaro’’ and “Don Giovanni,’’ are reimagined as modern women who meet by chance and embark on another form of love: “an alliance, an unspoken agreement that this would be a patient and safe friendship.”

As they tell each other their stories, the cruelty of men is delineated with precision and humor and a relentless honesty. Here is Rosina describing her husband: “ ‘Look what you’re doing to yourself,’ he would say, when she had wept and stormed at him after learning of some new infidelity.’’

The tales of the pair are interspersed with what appear to be passages from the memoirs of Da Ponte, the librettist for those two operas. These form a counterpoint to the women’s story, and taken together the plot twists in each line become either hilarious, or painful, just as the operas are.

For me the strongest stories are ones in which I gave a gasp of surprise as I realized that they were based upon the lives of some of the most influential Americans in the first half of the 20th century. Wickersham calls them the choreographer, the journalist, or simply “she” or “he,” adding to the mystery of the book.

One is about a paralyzed dancer cared for by Malcolm, a young gay man who is in love with a member of her husband’s company. Their relationship grows deeper when the company goes on tour; the way they open their hearts to each other, through the dancer’s retelling of Russian folk tales she has heard from her famous husband, is utterly convincing. By the end their plight is so real that you are breathless with what can only be described as the catharsis of pity and fear.

Another piece, the last story in the book, involves the journalist, a famous woman, and a doctor, and it begins: “At the age of almost sixty I fell in love with a man who wasn’t my husband.” How to make that new? Well, Wickersham does. Just when the narrator is in danger of whining, we read:

“A story . . . can become close, airless. You cannot stay shut up in your own head anymore; you need a break, some fresh air. Let’s go outside: We’ll take a walk, down a New York City side street. It’s 1944 . . . ’’

Suddenly we are immersed in a triangle that metamorphoses into another triangle, a love that is so improbable it has no choice but to make do, yet becomes all our stories, all our loves, with a grace and dignity that are exemplary.

What Wickersham has done here should not be underestimated. “The News From Spain’’ is a wonderfully imaginative and original book that should be cherished now, as surely as it will be cherished in the future by anyone interested in the evolution of the American short story.

Roberta Silman, author of a children’s book, a story collection, and three novels, can be reached at rsilman@verizon.net.
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