A review of Shelf Life of Happiness by Virginia Pye

Reviewed by Ruth Latta
Shelf Life of Happiness
by Virginia Pye
Press 53
Oct 23 2018, ISBN 978-1-941209-82-0, paperback, 169 pages

In her short story collection, Shelf Life of Happiness, Virginia Pye has a character, Nathan, in the title story, remarking about the “long shadow” that “Papa” casts over “lesser writers.”  If Ms. Pye ever felt overshadowed by the great Ernest Hemingway, or compelled to imitate his style, she has overcome it. Her short fiction seems more influenced by the other great modernist, James  Joyce. In Dublinershis central characters often come too late to insight about their situations in life, and so do Pye’s. She has presented nine stories in this collection, six of which have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies.

“Her Mother’s Garden” is an impressive story which was first published in SheBooks. The story is presented in the third person, through the heart and mind of Annie James, who has good intentions but lacks self-awareness. A recent university graduate from an academic family, Annie tries to build a life for herself in Boston, but has little drive and no compelling goals. She sometimes dreams of sitting on a porch at dusk with a husband, as her parents do. Her attachment to home leads her to spend most of her weekends there, in suburban Cambridge, MA, helping her mother garden. Over the next few years she has a series of dead-end jobs, eventually becoming librarian at a private school.

When a student’s father comes in to return a book, she recognizes him as Freddie Marcatelli, a former high school hunk on whom she’d had a secret crush, even though her girlfriends, from professional or academic families like herself, scorned him as a “gorilla” and a “thug.”  Now a handsome, divorced dermatologist, Fred sometimes betrays his tough-guy beginnings, as when he says, “I beat her [his ex] out and won the boy”, but, as Annie gets to know him, she is impressed by his kindness, attentiveness and appreciation of culture.  Nevertheless, she can’t forget their class differences from high school, and wonders if he’s dating her because she represents a more refined life.

On his first visit to her parents, he appreciates the beauty of the garden, but when she is shy about being kissed within sight of the house, he makes a disparaging remark about her mother’s cataracts that jars on her. “She hated that she had brought him to her mother’s garden in the first place… She had meant to save it for someone special.” All winter she debates whether to move to the next level with Fred. “There were other men out there, of course, but it all took so much effort…He was everything she wasn’t, and perhaps that was as it should be.”

As her parents’ health worsens, Annie sees less of Fred, until he turns up one spring morning with a package of seeds for them, and drives her out to visit them. He stays the afternoon with her and helps out. When he says that he hates to see a beautiful place falling into disrepair, she realizes it’s true, and that her parents can’t stay there,  and accepts his offer to put her in touch with his real estate broker.

As one might guess, Fred takes advantage of the situation. In a clever use of metaphor, Pye has Annie compare him to a hardy species, a morning glory taking over the garden. Readers wonder when Fred’s initial interest in Annie, which seemed genuine and guileless, changed to exploitative self-interest. Did he want to be part of her life in her beautiful home, and at some point despair of being allowed to do so? In the end, although Annie hates him, she’s grateful that he “pushed her out and onward with life.” Readers may feel that, with a little more drive and a little less snobbery on her part, the story could have ended happily for them both. The fact that a reader is left wondering about these matters shows that “Her Mother’s Garden” is a powerful story.

Obtuseness, complacency, the failure to take a realistic look at life, are characteristic of many of Pye’s protagonists.  In the title story, a young novelist, Nathan, happily married to a beautiful devoted woman who thinks the best of everyone, maintains a tie with a woman he met in college who encouraged him to write and got him his job as a proofreader.   Gloria, the daughter of a famous novelist, has enjoyed reflected glory all her life and has had opportunities because of her celebrated father.  Concerns with social class and the wish to rise are part of Gloria’s attraction, in Nathan’s mind. As the story begins, Gloria seems to want to change their friendship into an affair. Over dinner with their spouses, she claims that happiness has a shelf life and wonders how many people are truly happy. In the end, when Nathan realizes she has been unfaithful to both him and to her husband, he no longer feels attracted to her, and realizes that, with his wife, he has happiness with no expiry date.

Other stories which build to epiphanies are “Best Man”, involving a journey with a dying man in which the protagonist is completely surprised at the last gift his friend gives him.  In “Crying in Italian”, a woman on holiday with her family has been falling into fits of absent-mindedness while mulling over her plans to leave her husband.  She thinks, “He will get the kids if I don’t get my shit together.” An incident in which her eleven year old son fibs to his father to protect her makes her aware that the boy is trying to protect her and preserve their family life.  Seeing that her son wants to keep the ship of family happiness from sinking, she realizes that she must speak up and tell them all that the ship has sailed.

In “Redbone”, told from the perspectives of four characters, the principal one, a painter with an important upcoming exhibition, goes swimming and thinks about his life. The previous evening at a beach party he’d ritually burned one of his paintings, “a gesture meant to reference sacrifice in all cultures.”  Though he thinks he has suffered for his art, we see that his family has made equal if not greater sacrifices.  His girlfriend tells a friend on the phone that once they are back in the city she is thinking of letting him “slip away”, and in fact, Tom does just that, after realizing how he has hurt his wife and daughters.

The theme of a hardier species triumphing over others, which we find in “Her Mother’s Garden”, recurs in “Redbone”. Some may guess the outcome at the beginning; some will wonder if Tom’s self-centredness is much worse than anyone else’s drive to succeed, and wonder if he really deserves his fate. All will find it intriguing.

“Easter Morning”, initially published in “Prime Number Magazine,” is told in the first person plural and takes place at an Easter Sunday neighbourhood brunch. The resurrection theme begins with conversations about recent accidents in which some people miraculously survived. An exchange student, a Ukrainian orthodox priest visiting the United States and studying divinity is present. Then a father learns that his son has been keeping a dead bird in a dresser drawer in the hope that it will revive.  In the end, the suggestion that women are more sensitive and more perceptive than men seems an unjustified conclusion.

Another problematic though interesting story is “New Year’s Day,” first published in “The Baltimore Review”. Jessica, a twenty-eight year old kindergarten teacher, lives in a scenic, mountain-view town, where she has a steady boyfriend, and is active in her church. The church is fund-raising to send members on a trip to New York City, where Jessica has never been.  Meanwhile, she is troubled by a local murder. Two transients invaded a home and forced the father and two year old to the basement. The mother, who welcomed the six year old home from a sleep-over, did not signal the woman dropping off the child that something was amiss, but kept up a calm face and returned indoors to her death.

Mulling over the tragedy, Jessica talks to a gay man in her church, who seems to understand her better than anyone else, but who is leaving the community because he and his partner are not accepted. Jessica blames the woman who returned the child for not “sensing something”, and, at a church function, questions her as to why she didn’t experience a vibe that something was awry. When the woman and her husband flee the event, Jessica is filled with remorse.

If the story had ended there it would have ended well, but Pye continues on into the New York trip, where, in sampling a broader and more complex milieu than her own, Jessica finds closure about the murders. Yet a big city where murders happen with alarming frequency, might just as easily have confirmed Jessica’s worst fears about the world.

Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so are opinions about works of fiction. Because Ms. Pye’s stories provoke thought, they all have merit. “Redbone” was published in a literary magazine with a title that sums up the experience of all writers: Failbetter. Most of the stories in Shelf Life of Happiness succeed, and, those that don’t, fail better than average.

About the reviewer: Ruth Latta’s story, “Reminiscences for Rosie” was a winner in the Ottawa Public Library’s 2018 short story contest. Her three short story collections,  A Wild Streak, Save the Last Dance for Me, and Winter Moon,are available from info@baico.ca