FICTION: Stories follow a Michigan woman who writes fiction and drives a bus.
The linked stories in “Strange Love” are all told by Annie Zito, a single mother (divorced, with one daughter, Marly) who lives near Saugatuck, Mich., studies creative writing at Western Michigan University, drives a bus, writes fiction (a book of stories) and makes one good-faith effort after another to find the right guy and be … well, satisfied, she concludes when one of the more likely candidates rules out happiness as a goal.
The author, Lisa Lenzo, lives near Saugatuck, has a daughter, studied creative writing at Western Michigan, drives a bus, has published a (well-received) book of stories and — you get the picture. Even if it weren’t confirmed in the acknowledgments — in which Lenzo gives a nod to her “circle of women friends, who listened to many of these stories before I transformed them into fiction” — the consonance between author and character would come as no surprise, because these stories have a lived-in quality, hovering somewhere between vicarious experience and too much information. The reader becomes that listening friend as Annie relates the sometimes moving, sometimes amusing and often uncomfortable details of her adventures in dating. She is too fast for one prospect, not funny enough for another and, for yet another (a fastidious doctor who microwaves dinners he’s served as a guest), overshadowed by a previous love.
Threaded through these romantic forays are stories of Annie’s daughter — 8 when we meet her, a young woman when we leave her — a spunky, fragile girl who dyes her hair flame red, rescues stray animals and has a thing for troubled guys. In one especially well-wrought story, “Flames,” Marly’s delicate negotiation of the space between standing up for the vulnerable and standing up for herself (against an abusive boyfriend) is filtered through her mother’s powerful but powerless will to protect her.
From angst-ridden and occasionally angry adolescence through the confusing but promising onslaught of adulthood, Marly’s perspective (“out of all the weirdos and whackos you’ve brought home, he’s the best”) acts as a welcome, spontaneous counterweight to that of Annie’s counselor, whose presence can seem more explicatory than dramatic.
This tension — between the immediate and the almost clinically considered — runs through Lenzo’s stories, as animating as the tension between the romantic and the mundane that complicates Annie’s life. It is the difference between describing stretch marks as “iridescent blue-white flaws that shimmer like minnows” and saying, “I don’t want to fully undress with Stephan unless we are going to be fully sexual” — a difference that distinguishes “Strange Love” in its uneasy and artful balancing of storytelling and life.
Ellen Akins teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University. She lives in Wisconsin.