Affection is a scarce commodity in “The Isle of Youth,” Andover author Laura van den Berg’s bleak new collection of stories about rudderless young women adrift in their own lives, where the emotional currents are chilly, lies are plentiful, and family offers no haven.
“I love a good scheme,” a nightclub worker named Sylvia tells her identical twin in the title tale. “I would have been a great criminal mastermind.”
Like many of van den Berg’s characters, Sylvia is morally insensible and blithely, habitually dishonest, but she overestimates her ability to get away with her deceptions. Having lured her twin down to Miami, claiming an emergency, Sylvia confesses that what she really wants is for her sister, a research librarian with a disintegrating marriage, to pretend to be her for a few days while she flies off to Isla de la Juventud for a last fling with her lover.
THE ISLE OF YOUTH
Sylvia warns her sister that a woman will be trailing her around town: the wife of the man Sylvia is sleeping with. That two hired thugs will show up, too, shadowing her for an unrelated reason, Sylvia does not mention. And the bit about the romantic getaway? She made that up.
The ghost of familial love haunts “Antarctica,” in which a woman arrives on the frigid continent after her sibling, a scientist, is killed in an explosion there. “My brother and I were very close,” she tells his colleague, but that was years ago, back when they shared a house in Davis Square, before she started keeping a secret that corroded their connection until it nearly disappeared.
In van den Berg’s dark, unsettling stories, loneliness and abandonment abound. Parents tend to be dead or otherwise gone. Husbands are likely straight arrows, but this only makes them killjoys, unsuited to women who maintain a peculiarly clinical distance from events in their lives and easily absolve themselves of responsibility.
“I don’t believe in consequences. There’s just what happens and what doesn’t,” a woman says to her husband by phone in “Acrobat.” The two had gone together to Paris, attempting to rescue their marriage, but he’d given up and left her there. She hadn’t been listening to whatever he said in the Tuileries, just before he headed back to Hartford and the house she doesn’t want.
“I never liked that house,” she tells him. “It short-circuited my nerves, it was so quiet.”
“I like quiet,” he says.
“I know,” she says. “I always hated that about you.”
Newlyweds on a disaster-plagued honeymoon to Patagonia are at the center of “I Looked for You, I Called Your Name.” The collection’s opening story, it is also its most awkward — an odd choice to lead an otherwise strong lineup.
But it begins enticingly, when the couple’s plane crashes, and the husband questions his bloodied wife’s decision to unfasten her seat belt. “I leaned forward, away from his touch,” she recalls. “These were the kinds of moments that had been recently giving me pause.”
Shabby milieus are plentiful in these stories: the grim Florida apartment complex where the grifter’s daughters live in “Opa-locka,” one sister more criminally inclined than the other; the low-rent Midwestern motels where the bank-robbing teenage cousins lounge in “Lessons,” wishing they would make the TV news.
The seediest is in “The Greatest Escape,” about a teenager named Crystal whose magician mother, at best barely competent on stage, is raising her on fantasy and not much else.
Desperate to float free of her sad existence, Crystal isn’t looking for the truth that comes when her mother’s web of dissimulation rips for good. “Why did you bother telling me any of this?” the girl asks. “Why didn’t you just keep lying?”