Medicine and mortality, damage and dysfunction thread like lymph nodes through these nine spooky, sophisticated short stories by California author Melissa Yancy, whose work as a health sciences fundraiser exposed her to the complicated lives of patients and physicians. No doubt those experiences, in combination with a slightly Gothic imagination, shaped these stories.
In "Dog Years," a geneticist struggles to stay positive about her research as she sees her son growing weaker from Duchenne muscular dystrophy. "Consider This Case" turns a brilliant prenatal surgeon into an often exasperated caretaker for his dying, difficult father. "Hounds" is the story of a fading romance between a medical fundraiser and a war veteran whose blasted face is being reconstructed in a series of pricey surgeries. "Miracle Girl" explores the psychological defenses put up by a woman who survived leukemia and the removal of a teratoma — an unformed twin attached to her head. In "Stray," a damaged, isolated woman others call a "simpleton" finds an abandoned toddler and sneaks her home.
While all of these stories have a slightly freakish feel, each also is starkly realistic, and makes you think of something you read in the newspaper long ago, or something you heard a stranger tell someone on a bus, or perhaps something your mother told you happened to a remote relative, years back.
The drama of severe illness or dying is at the heart of many of the stories, yet it is treated not as a solemn or holy thing, but rather as something characters must grapple with as they go about their mundane daily lives, trying mightily to keep fear and despair at bay in themselves or others. It's a poignant struggle, and one that Yancy portrays well.
The stories also explore the choreography of long marriages and casual romances, of siblings and parents who, though they may be alike, don't understand each other at all. Love is often suspect, treated as a hazardous vulnerability by those who feel it in themselves or from others.
It's a melancholy book, illuminated by dark wit and moments of grace, as when the dying son in "Dog Years" cajoles his cautious researcher mother into dancing in slow motion to the opening music of "Chariots of Fire."
When she snaps, "What is the purpose of this exercise?" he replies, exasperated, "Mom, not everything is science, OK?" And so she joins him in his tai chi-like dance, still telling herself how pointless it is to try to slow down time, and yet, for a moment, feeling her grief ease. It's a lovely moment, one of many in these strange, sad stories.
Pamela Miller is a Star Tribune night metro editor.