Collection Review: The Dog of the Marriage

the_dog_of_the_marriage.largeThere’s a one-sentence story in this collection called “Memoir”—“Just once in my life—oh, when have I ever wanted anything just once in my life?”—and it is exquisite.

But mostly for me, The Dog of the Marriage was like walking through a crowd of people and thinking you recognize someone, but realizing that you’re mistaken, it’s not the person you thought it was. And by that I mean, there were moments when I felt incredibly close to the narrative voices, when I could relate to the emotional condition in each story, but the moments were brief. They would strike out brilliantly from charmless backgrounds. They weren’t anchored to stories with resonating plots. This is a quotable collection, which I love, but not a memorable one.

Of all the stories, the first — “Beach Town” — and the collection’s namesake are the one’s that stuck with me. And “Memior” of course. I appreciated the subtly of “Beach Town” as a quick study of power and gender relations in a marriage. It’s one of those stories that hides its claws, but somehow has you in its grip by the end. I loved how carefully Hempel handled the seemingly small, mundane conversations that aren’t really about the small things. Like when you yell at someone for leaving the remote on the couch instead of by the TV, when really you’re upset because no one ever appreciates you. That kind of thing. I think I primarily liked “The Dog of the Marriage” for its delicate and heartbreaking take on life and death and loss: “A love affair begins with a fantasy. For instance, that the beloved will always be there.” There was some of this sentiment in the last story too, “Offertory” but that one — about a woman who describes her past sexual encounters with a married couple to her male friend — I didn’t always connect with. But it had this gem in it: “It is possible to imagine a person so entirely that the image resists attempts to dislodge it.” 

I felt the same way about “Jesus is Waiting.” I was on the verge of really liking it a few times, and then it would fizzle out, somehow, to my mind, not deliver. But yet again, a diamond in the rough: “In a tornado outside Baltimore, in a broken neighborhood off I-95, I asked the attendant in a Mobil station, “Where’s anywhere else?” I could very well be missing the point of these stories, but it didn’t feel that way as I read; it just felt like it wasn’t all meshing.

Hempel is a keen observer of human behavior and feeling, and her writing style is distinctive, but I found it cool and clipped — sometimes too much so for me. Spare writing is compelling to a degree, and then past some point, it seems like an overused technique — style for style’s sake. I like when there’s a balance; I like when the writer seems to capture the rhythm of give and take, of less and more. I wanted to feel deprived and then slightly satisfied, and then deprived again. But often I felt out of step.

Some of the stories in this collection are online – hooray! Check out the Stories Available Online for more.

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