With some overlapping, this impressive story collection could be divided into three parts: immigrant-themed stories, the Leary family stories and the Charlottesville stories. The latter mainly concern University of Virginia professors and their families.
Jessica Francis Kane’s characters journey to Seattle, London, Jerusalem and coastal New England. At home and in their travels, they come “this close” to finding themselves, something Kane beautifully illuminates — the space between what might have been and what regrettably often comes to pass.
In “Lucky Boy,” Henry, a recent college graduate now living in New York City, misinterprets the meaning of a Korean family’s gift. Later, having disappointed the Koreans regarding the gift and toughened by city life, he loses some of his humanity by rationalizing that “you’ve got to have a policy because you can’t agonize every time” predicaments arise in the city.
In “American Lawn,” another story of cultural misunderstanding, neighbors struggle to gain the upper hand with the Croatian refugee cultivating a small garden in one neighbor’s yard. Whereas Karill has been tortured in the old country, Janeen and Pat of Thomas Lane, Charlottesville, quibble over whether or not to turn on a garden hose during a water shortage.
Kane’s empathy for her characters, certainly for Karill and the Korean family, makes one wish for their happiness.
In “The Essentials of Acceleration,” Holly Levering, who takes care of her doddering professor father, can’t shake the aimlessness that troubles her. Her malaise and her father’s failing health represent the family’s diminishing importance to the Charlottesville neighborhood of Thomas Lane. On the other hand, a Mexican immigrant named Leo brings vitality and stability to the changing neighborhood. Intending to leave Charlottesville when her father dies, Holly dreams of asking Leo to accompany her — in this way perhaps gaining some of his strength.
Possibly the collection’s best story, the heartbreaking “Next in Line” concerns a woman’s recovery from the death of her child. Having heretofore identified people in her life by a letter, an initial — the husband is “H,” the baby “S” — Eva, the mother, calls the child by name in the story’s final, moving line.
The last three stories deal perceptively with shifting family dynamics over the course of a man’s long marriage and teaching career.
The Leary family stories that appear early on are less successful. Except for the ending of “Double Take,” the stories lack emotion. Two of the four Leary stories are a half-page long. The two longer ones are narrated dispassionately.
Still, the other pieces in “This Close” capture so richly the joy and ache of living that this reviewer couldn’t help but be moved by Kane’s lovely book.
Anthony Bukoski, a short-story writer, lives in Superior, Wis.