In the opening scene of “Bobcat,” the first story in Rebecca Lee’s short-story collection, a woman anguishes over a terrine she’s preparing for a dinner party. She feels “queasy” as she recounts “the brutal list of tasks” the recipe involves — “devein, declaw, decimate the sea and other animals, eventually emulsifying them into a paste.”

But pre-dinner party jitters for the unnamed first-person narrator don’t center only on the menu. She’s wondering if she should warn an acquaintance that her husband is having an affair. She’s feeling “irrational rage” toward the female characters in her husband’s new novel, and she’s doubting her guest Susan’s account of how she lost her arm to a bobcat attack on the steppes of Nepal.

The themes of insecurity, self-doubt and skepticism that run through “Bobcat” thread their way through the other stories Lee offers in “Bobcat and Other Stories.” Her description of the terrine as “a perfect melding of disparate entities” applies just as easily to the relationships between friends, married couples, lovers, co-workers, teachers and students she describes in beautifully descriptive prose.

In “The Banks of the Vistula,” a young woman desperate to impress her linguistics professor plagiarizes a paper. Fear of discovery is overridden by new worries when he asks her to present it at a symposium. In “Min,” Sarah, a Midwest college student, spends a summer in Hong Kong with her close friend Min, hired by his father to find him the perfect wife. She’ll discover as much about herself as she will about Min’s potential brides-to-be.

In “Fialta,” which won the National Magazine Award for Fiction, Franklin Stadbakken, a famous architect, invites promising young apprentices to his famous retreat, one that will have readers drawing comparisons to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin. Despite Stadbakken’s threats and discouragement, relationships blossom like building designs.

In all these stories, confused, sometimes misdirected men and women struggle to figure out their places in the world, stumble into often unhappy situations and sometimes, to their great misfortune, get exactly what they were hoping for.

But it’s not so much the plots that resonate as much as the characters. They embody our own fears and misgivings about family and love and our willingness to compromise. As the dinner party host says in “Bobcat,” “the dream of a happy family can be so overpowering that people will often put up with a lot to approximate it. Sometimes a little blindness keeps the family together.”

Lee captures little pieces of all of us and she does it in language so delicate and precise that you’ll re-read passages for the joy of it. “The importance of, the sweetness of” words and sentences come to be appreciated by the plagiarizer in “The Banks of the Vistula.” It’s a lesson we can all learn from Lee’s book.


Carol Memmott’s book reviews have appeared in USA Today.