Lauren Acampora’s debut collection, “The Wonder Garden,” is a weird, inspired, original collection of 13 interwoven short stories. It is reminiscent of John Cheever in its anatomizing of suburban ennui and of Ann Beattie in its bemused dissection of a colorful cast of eccentrics. But Acampora’s is entirely her own book, as it is self-consciously of its own world: Set in the fictional town of Old Cranbury, “a desirable suburb in a sterling school district, not too far from the city,” with a “historic pedigree” dating back to the Puritans.
In this ostensibly serene setting, revelations and reversals, oddities and shocks lurk around every corner (or behind every shutter and blind). We begin with “Ground Fault,’’ a story about the negotiations between a home inspector, a newly married couple on the brink of buying a house and having a baby, and a realtor eager to close the deal. The collection’s consuming themes are all here: the vexed correlations between homes and their occupants, the simultaneous lure and oppression of marriage and parenthood, the relationship between private and public personas, personal and professional identities.
The houses of “The Wonder Garden’’ function both as accurate representations of and deceptive covers for the complex and ever-changing realities within. These are haunted houses, possessed by “the breath of the past.” Some residents see themselves as “torchbearers, defenders of the original residents and their ideals,” while others recoil at the long arm of history, fancying themselves “suburban iconoclasts.” Quarrels and feuds, squabbles and tensions abound: over school-board decisions, zoning, renovation plans, parenting styles.
Even as they take pride in their tony environs, many of the town’s residents, like those in “Ground Fault,’’ envision “a life somewhere beyond . . . a life more captivating than” their own. To the younger generation, Cranbury feels “claustrophobic” and “homogenous.” Adults escape the oppressions of domesticity in their garage workshops, all-consuming renovation or artistic projects, or the arms of people who aren’t their spouses. Some dream of moving to Paris, others of joining the Peace Corps. Some feel they have outgrown the town and are consumed by the desire to leave. Many are restless, undergoing “transitions and investigations.”
In this world of secrets, lies, and gaps between appearance and reality, the truth makes sudden, striking interventions. In the title story, a woman realizing that her husband is having an affair seems “to tap into a deep, primal stream that delivers the truth to all women”; a wife, witnessing the husband she had thought was a stable good-provider type become irresponsible and increasingly unhinged, as the “truth detonates before her” in “The Umbrella Bird.’’
Acampora is a brilliant anthropologist of the suburbs, keenly “aware of the hidden, parallel world beneath the mundane,” adept at uncovering unexpected parallels and interesting connections between ostensibly very different people. Although the situations she puts her characters in are extreme, verging on implausible, she repeatedly strikes universal chords.
In “The Virginals,’’ one especially obnoxious resident of Old Cranbury “finds herself juggling contempt and pity for the fretful people she sees around her”; at its least dextrous, “The Wonder Garden” can seem more full of scorn than insight. But one can always sense the countervailing tendency of Acampora’s continually striving to push past judgment towards empathy. At one point in “Elevations’,’ a character who seems akin to Acampora in his penchant for “imagining the hidden lives of others” thinks: “It would be so easy to become a misanthrope . . . to judge others by their Barbour jackets, their piano-key teeth. These are people with their own heartaches, he scolds himself, their own generosities.” Acampora’s ability to lay bare the heartaches of complex individuals within an utterly unique imaginative world is worthy of high praise.
THE WONDER GARDEN
By Lauren Acampora
Grove, 368 pp., $24Priscilla 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.’’