"The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons" won the 2014 Iowa Short Fiction Award. The last story, especially, will break your heart. Sometimes you wonder how a writer can penetrate life's mysteries so deeply. I will describe the beauty of this and other stories after noting that Slomski, despite her talent, occasionally slips up. This generally occurs in the more minimalist stories where the author, who teaches at Concordia College in Moorhead, subtracts or extracts the life from her fiction, substituting cleverness for substance.

The collection begins with a playlet set in a restaurant. The characters — You, Me, The woman with whom you once had an affair, Her boyfriend, etc. — show their disaffection for one another while dining on fried sage leaves, squash flan, lamb and Tre Funghi Penne. "He pushes his plate away." "She lifts an asparagus spear to her teeth." "She watches for your reaction," read various stage directions. Despite the snubs and sidelong glances intended to convey meaning, nothing much happens until one in this party of arch sensibilities sees the world in a new way when she puts on the broken eyeglasses of a diner who's in love. The narration is so mechanical that the conclusion, too, seems strained.

In other stories, the author favors craft over meaning. In "A Fulfilling Life," a novelist even announces "that nothing really happens in the book [he's writing]. … As far as I was concerned plot is for genre writers."

Nestled among the less successful pieces are gorgeous, compelling stories with such empathy. In these, Slomski ennobles lives that otherwise might not matter much. In "The Chair," an old man at a flea market recalls the losses in his life, perhaps losses of love and youth, as he weeps over a chair he's sold. "You could come to our house to sit in the chair," the new owners tell him. "Thursday evenings, we could say." Nothing consoles the seller, whose grief stems from something deep and unspoken.

In "Correction," an artist uses correction fluid on his drawings, a metaphor and method that reflect the protagonist's breakup with her lover. In the unsettling "Neighbors" and in "Iris and the Inevitable Sorrow," voyeurs — one of them a cricket, of all things — delight in others' insecurities.

In the brief, beautiful "Silhouette," neighbors spy through a window where a telescope trained on two lovers "can also magnify a whisper."

The last, elegant piece, "Before the Story Ends," deals with a print shop owner, a hat maker and a little princess who, were this a fairy tale, would be carried "on a swallow's back to a faraway land." The magical story concludes a book that, despite missteps, is filled with mystery and longing.

Anthony Bukoski, a short-story writer, lives in Superior, Wis.