Lee Smith has long had a reputation as a master of the short story, and her new collection, "Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger" galvanizes that reputation.
In the book -- which has new and selected stories -- Smith offers the grit of the domestic scene, the power of the written word, and the transcendent beauty of women as friends, lovers, daughters and mothers. We fall under the spell of her delicious Southern cadence, and we care for her characters, especially at the moment when one distilled event irrevocably alters everything. At the end, we are there, celebrating their strong and certain victories of the heart.
Humor abounds. In "House Tour," Lynn, whose marriage and body are breaking, spins a ghost tale for unwelcome and misguided house-tour visitors. She gives the red-hatters what they crave, and realizes the same, especially after taking to heart her doctor's advice: " 'The three most important rules of aging,' Dr. Lamb told her as he set her broken ankle, 'are these: Pay attention, pay attention, pay attention.' "
Smith pays attention.
She asks us not to dismiss the woman narrating "The Southern Cross" as a gold-digger too shallow to matter. We watch her scratch off superficiality with her own well-manicured nails and turn the meaning of "going native" into an act of rebellion against her mother's Austen-esque advice to "please people. Marry rich."
Smith's characters aren't afraid to use their voice. In "Tongues of Fire," Karen is 13 and her father is having a nervous breakdown when she discovers the power of faith in its multiple layers. In "Fried Chicken," we learn that the secret to good fried chicken lies not so much in how Polly makes it, but in what she does with it. Alice Scully, in "The Happy Memories Club," resists writing a sanitized past for the comfort of her writing group.
Smith does not advocate comfort. Her often reckless characters cut to the heart of the truth. In "Stevie and Mama," Roxy's world cracks upon discovering letters tucked into the bottom of a fishing tackle box. Here, even betrayal and death are not enough to unhook the love two people share.
In the title story, daughters gather around a mother preparing to die. Smith splices open the myth of the contemporary family to reveal how that myth is paradoxically admirable and unattainable. A couple stands together on a deck, "nuclear and whole, like a piece of architecture against the wind." Like any architecture, the structure must be built before you know where the stress fractures are.
Smith asks us to be like her Mrs. Darcy, who, with the taste of salt on her lips, is willing at the end to call into the night, "Now."
Susan E. Thurston is a poet (under the name Susan Thurston Hamerski) and fiction writer in Minneapolis.