"Why is life so easy for some people?" wonders the adult son of an aging parent in Elizabeth McCracken's latest story collection. He is flummoxed by how difficult every moment seems: Close to or far from his father, he feels adrift.

But here's a secret that's not a secret, at least not to McCracken: Nothing is easy, ever. Family can be frustrating. Love is unpredictable, loss inevitable. Even an act as hopeful as taking your elderly dad to Scotland to look for puffins can turn out to be an exercise in regret.

"The Souvenir Museum" is McCracken's third story collection, and her understanding of how we stumble up against these painful realities unfurls on every page. Tuned into absurdities and disasters, she knows our losses are calamitous, our connections precarious. How can we ever hope to navigate wisely?

Imagine you are the mother in "Birdsong From the Radio," who nibbles in besotted contentment on her children until she can't, then gobbles challah as a substitute. Or the long-jilted lover in the title story, obsessed with a man who ditched her 11 years earlier. She travels to a fake Viking village in Denmark to deliver a valuable family heirloom to him. Would you do the same? Or would you know when to let go?

Attachments are mercurial, these stories insist. "That was the distressing thing about some people, how their love was like the beaded rope across the pool: the substance was continuous, but it was only the beads that kept it afloat," thinks a father on an outing with his partner and son in "Robinson Crusoe at the Waterpark."

"Some people could put love down and pick it back up and not know why your feelings were hurt by the loveless intervals." Uncertainty startles him into making a surprising declaration.

About to become a grandmother, Thea in "A Walk-Through Human Heart" searches a thrift store for a doll her daughter yearned for as a child, unsure if her daughter will be angry or thrilled. "She knew her maternal love would always be edged with meanness, so as to matter: sometimes you needed a blade to get results."

McCracken's prose is wry and exquisite, a good companion to her generous, comic observations. Streetcars are "lovely captives that left only tracks behind." A late-night radio talk show host has a "beef bourguignon voice and regular callers."

But about that blade: McCracken flashes it in several recurring stories about a couple, illustrating how it wounds. Jack and Sadie meet in "Two Sad Clowns" and cobble together a life. Jack's odd English family befuddles Sadie in "An Irish Wedding"; he learns to soothe her weird, jealous mother in "The Get-Go." And in "Nothing, Darling, Only Darling, Darling," a trip to Amsterdam reveals how the push and pull of a long relationship can erupt into something unexpected and ugly.

You might change your life at any moment, Jack thinks. He's right. You might. But what happens with those you hold dear when you do?

Connie Ogle is a book critic in Florida.

The Souvenir Museum
By: Elizabeth McCracken.
Publisher: Ecco, 243 pages, $26.99.