In her debut short story collection, Safe as Houses, Marie-Helene Bertino fills the pages with wit and warmth in her nine stories. Bertino, who served as the associate editor of One Story for six years, shows good mastery of the short story in her unique storylines—such as dating the idea of your significant other, or a lonely alien coming to Earth to learn more about humans.
The title story follows a man named Pluto and his newly acquired partner, Mars, as they break into someone’s house to destroy the sentimental objects there. Leaving money and material valuables alone, they dismember family photos, macaroni art, and rare wine, removing the irreplaceable. Considering the wife who lives in the house they’re wrecking, Pluto thinks: “I want her to shake her head, locked in the band that pulls her face into a painful-looking grimace and know I have done her a favor. She will say, ‘I will never take anything for granted again.’” As he and Mars cause destruction, more is revealed about the sadness he carries around and why he victimizes people in this way.
The last story, “Carry Me Home, Sisters of Saint Joseph,” is about Ruby, a woman trying to forget her ex. Following a guide to quit smoking so that she can quit him, she smokes cigarettes, eats apples, or starts a hobby every time she thinks of him. In her quest to forget, she ends up living in a local Catholic church, tending to their wilting tomato plants. At first, Ruby is cynical, referring to the nuns that live at the church as “Sister Crooked Part” or “Sister Whoever,” but as more time goes on she opens up to the nuns, beginning to thrive as her care causes the tomato plants to do the same.
While each story in the collection is different, with unique characters that all possess their own separate back stories and goals, Bertino’s voice remains the same. It shows up in the main characters, which all have at least a tinge of sarcasm or cynicism. Though the people in these pages all go through their own separate problems, the collection feels unified and woven together well by a common thread of their discontent. As I finished each story, I wondered what she had in store for the next one, and was never disappointed.