Lily King’s “Euphoria” was a 2014 finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, and her wise, wry, witty novel, “Writers and Lovers” was one of the sleeper hits of 2020. Now King has published “Five Tuesdays in Winter,” her first collection of short fiction, 10 fierce, funny, tender stories that demonstrate both range and emotional heft. Five of them are brand-new; all of them are stunners.
Adolescence — its electric thrill and aching joys, its brutality and loneliness — is a major theme here. Several of the stories are narrated by adults pondering their youthful experiences; others focus on the struggle of parents to connect with increasingly remote or difficult children. The preteen or teenage boys and girls in this book feel the world opening with a tantalizing sense of possibility even as they long for the simplicity and comfort of early childhood.
The opening story, “Creature,” is narrated by Cara, who reminisces about her stint as a live-in mother’s helper with a wealthy family during the summer she was 14. The experience is invested with a fairy tale aura; the house’s posh neighborhood has a “Sleeping Beauty … feel,” her “third-floor turret” bedroom reminds her of Rapunzel’s. “Halfway through Jane Eyre for summer reading,” Cara sees Hugh, her employer’s married son, as a dashing Rochester to her plucky and precocious Jane. Hugh transgresses boundaries in initially exciting but ultimately menacing ways; Cara’s romantic fantasies of a “tender, delicate kiss” come crashing down, and her inner Bertha is unleashed as she fights back. “You become a creature I can’t understand, my mother sometimes said,” Cara tells us, but it’s her channeling that creaturely fierceness that saves her from the predatory Hugh.
Creatureliness, embodiment, the body’s strength, and vulnerability haunt these stories. Cara has never kissed a boy, but that summer her body blooms in ways that empower and imperil her. In “Waiting for Charlie,” a 91-year-old man tries to communicate with his comatose granddaughter, who’s had a skiing accident, and thinks: “They were both adrift from their bodies. And without the body, what are we?”
Absent, damaged, troubled fathers pervade the collection. Some struggle with alcoholism or drug addiction, others with mental illness, still others with adulterous itches. Mothers, too, abandon their children, both via frostiness and disapproval or by running off with lovers. Children search for surrogate parents and others act as surrogate parents for younger children.
The book’s title story is King at her distinctive best, combining whimsy, wistfulness, and warmth in a hilarious and romantic story. Mitchell, a bookstore owner whose wife left him for his college buddy and whose 12-year-old daughter, Paula, has “grown tall, learned words like reticent, and found him flawed,” pines earnestly for his employee, Kate. Paula is right that he’s a bit condescending and curmudgeonly, but we — and Kate — see the vulnerability and yearning behind the mask of competence and erudition. Paula asks Kate to tutor her in Spanish on Tuesday nights; around Kate, Mitchell feels elated, disoriented, giddy: “he’d read about this feeling in novels, but he was sure he’d never experienced it.” King deftly depicts the small, tentative gestures her characters make toward expressing their feelings and achieving genuine happiness.
The perils of reticence, the dangers of repression: In these stories, suppressing sadness, anger, and longing, failing to articulate important things, leads to relationships dissolving, irrational acts, outbursts, even violence. In “Hotel Seattle,” a gay man meets his former college roommate, a straight man with a conventional family, for a drink, and things take a dark, savage turn. In “North Sea,” a young girl’s unwillingness to discuss her father’s death causes her to behave in disturbing ways that harm other children. The narrator of “When in the Dordogne” recalls how Grant and Ed, two college boys who cared for him one summer, brought fun, irreverence, and warmth to his staid, conservative household and kindness, attention, and love to a boy who’d always felt like a “deep inconvenience” to his parents. If he expressed strong feeling, his mother would call him “a little beast who needed to change back to a boy.” Grant and Ed encourage his “beastliness” — his playfulness, his crush on a girl, his expressiveness. Ed grows up to become a novelist, the narrator to marry his crush. Fulfillment is only possible when emotional risks are taken and feelings put into words.
Many of King’s stories feature bookish characters who turn out to be writers; reading, writing, storytelling save them. “I was trying things out,” Cara tells us, “life as Jane Eyre, life as a writer alone in her own room, which eventually . . . is what I became.” “Timeline” is narrated by a budding writer entangled with a married man; she muses on “words and how, if you put a few of them in the right order, a three-minute story about a girl and her dog can get people to forget all the ways you’ve disappointed them.” “People always wanted words for all that roiled inside you,” Mitchell thinks. King gives us those words in stories that compress marvelous polarities: They hum with intense feeling even as they are dense with allusion; their literary sophistication never obscures their accessibility to our need to be transported.
FIVE TUESDAYS IN WINTER
By Lily King
Grove Press, 240 pp., $27
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’