Winner of the prestigious G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction, Living Arrangements, a collection of short stories by Laura Maylene Walter, offers the reader thirteen well-crafted stories, crisp in their language, tight in their structure, and thought-provoking in their effect. Most of the stories deal with loss, memory, family relations, and a variety of “living arrangements.”
In the first story, “Living Arrangements,” the reader visits all the physical buildings and inner spaces a woman inhabits from the first few months of her birth until after her death. Loss of a secure childhood in a suburban house, a lonely college dorm, a single-bed apartment rented on a good salary from her first job, a dismal marriage in a spacious house, a hospital bed where her mother lies dying, and finally her own lonely death after which her spirit unites with her favorite dog’s—it is a solemn, reflective journey that a reader takes with the first person narrator as she ruminates on the living arrangements which marked milestones in her otherwise unremarkable life. That many readers will share the arc of the protagonist’s living arrangements makes this story poignant.
The other stories that engage with physical spaces include “Live Model,” “The Last Halloween,” and “Return to Stillbrook.” In the first story Walter raises questions of beauty and its commodification in our society through the tale of an assistant in a lingerie store who models live in the store window, an act that successfully boosts sales. While some are shocked at the exploitation of the female body to enhance profits, others throng the store and purchase merchandise. As the protagonist positions herself in the window like a mannequin for several hours, Walter draws attention to our age of instant celebrity and the role of sexualized media images of femininity. What makes “Live Model” touching is the assistant’s inability or refusal to admit to her exploitation because the attention she receives is a highlight in a life accustomed to being compared to an “ugly” TV star.
In “The Last Halloween,” childhood fascination with the nighttime celebration ends with a hint at the rape of Ariel, a small girl, who is trapped in a heap of leaves with a burning jack o’ lantern nearby while her friend, the protagonist, rushes home to seek help. Walter creates an atmosphere of excitement as the two friends, dressed in costumes, venture into the neighborhood for trick or treating. Having the protagonist dressed up as Sylvia Plath works as a subtle premonition as the tone of the narration darkens. Walter is perfectly honest when she makes the terrified child-protagonist report first on her stolen book and then on Ariel’s predicament, as an after-thought. But by then it may be too late, readers realize. The story reflects on the drastic changes in the living arrangements of pre-teen girls: the familiar friendly neighborhood is now a place of fear, danger, and trauma.
In “The System of Counting” Tabitha, leading an otherwise ordinary life, has a compulsive disorder. She cleans her apartment several times a week and counts everything she does multiple times. Her obsession with the number of times she does something makes her unable to sustain any healthy relationship. At the end of the story, she breaks up with her boyfriend, and her girl friend refuses to pamper her odd habits and leaves her. But the story ends with a disturbing image of Tabitha closely inspecting a lightning bug dancing around a bulb. Her inner living arrangement consumes her to an extent that she can’t function in the world inhabited by other people. But in the obsession with numerical counts perhaps lies a need for emotional stability. At least the numbers don’t fail her. Walter, through her undramatic language, sensitively draws the reader’s attention to the most intimate but barely perceptible necessities of people who are often dismissed as dysfunctional.
Relationships with earlier generations become the focus of “How to Speak Czech,” in which two Czech sisters prepare to welcome a granddaughter. The granddaughter, a young and successful American with little affinity for traditional concepts of home and hearth, finds her world of canned and take-home food colliding with her grandmother’s world, in which stews and pies are made from scratch and the range and oven never seem to be turned off. Walter positions the American granddaughter in the Old World tradition of serving the head of the family, her father, while the women busy themselves in the kitchen to satisfy him. Moreover, the two Czech women sort their old tensions as the single sister, out of long habit, almost succeeds in attracting the attention of the visiting granddaughter while the matriarch of the family resists openly. Walter paints the picture of a family that is fast disappearing from American life: inter-generational differences and the compelling need felt by immigrant generations to pass on their heritage, divorce and break-up of nuclear families begun by American children of European immigrants, and the generation that has no memory of its family’s immigrant experience. The author’s lucid word choice, direct narrative voice, and transparent style add impressively to the human angle of sibling tensions, parent-child distances, and grandparent-grandchild bonding in the living arrangement of family visits that perhaps offer a rooted sense of identity.
Walter’s collection of short stories stays with the reader for a long time. Her accessible but not simplistic style adds value to the writing. The stories make us reflect on incidents in our lives that shape our identities in imperceptible ways. They also remind us of the range of instincts that make us complexly and helplessly human. Although Living Arrangements is her first collection of short stories, it is no surprise that Walter is already an acclaimed writer who successfully engages with a variety of human emotions, relationships, and institutions.