A wide-ranging volume offers a collection of short stories and a novella.
Coles (Sister Carrie, 2016, etc.) seems drawn to epiphanies begotten from moral crisis, a theme that permeates this assemblage of 33 tales and a novella, well under 100 pages. In the first story, “The Gift,” a 17-year-old girl, Catherine, becomes pregnant and is sent by her furious mother to a convent in France to deliver the child and then give it up for adoption. The baby is born without feet, but Catherine loves her deeply anyway, teaching her the difference between a disability and a blessing. In “The Necklace,” an unmarried couple struggles to figure out their future while they travel in India, but when they see tragedy befall another pair, they fully realize the depth of their love for each other. Some of the stories are so short they’re impressionistic and pull the reader into what seems like a dramatic narrative already in progress. For example, “The Bear” is two pages and details the outpouring of gratitude a man feels for life after he narrowly escapes death. Many of the tales confront a conundrum, inviting readers to draw their own conclusions. In “Dilemma,” a surgeon’s son shoots himself in an attempted suicide, and the physician has to decide if it’s either cruel or loving to try to save him, given the irreparable damage he has done to himself. The book concludes with a novella that dramatizes the love a teenage girl has for an Iranian boy possibly mixed up in terrorist activity. Cole’s compilation is as artistically ambitious as it is eclectic—one of the stories is set in France during its Revolutionary era. In addition, the author’s moral explorations are courageously unflinching and don’t shy away from either controversial or macabre subject matter. But these ethical studies can cross a line into sermonizing and read like overly didactic parables meant to impart heavy-handed lessons. Furthermore, the prose can be underwhelming: “Despite our lack-of-a-forever-marriage commitment, Helen and I were intimate good buddies, and we leveled our friendship canoe pretty well by stroking carefully in unison on opposite sides.”
Realistically gritty and morally astute, these tales can also feel overly instructional.