“The Stories We Tell” by Patti Callahan Henry

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a penchant for linking two otherwise dissimilar things in the course of my reviews. Usually, it’s limited to the little quotation I often include at the top; I’m particularly proud of managing to reference a Disney movie in my post about Walter Kirn’s Blood Will Out. My mind is a strange place.

Sometimes, however, there are weird little allusions and connections that just have to make it into the review proper, because they shed light on the book, help me to process and make sense of what I read: a lens to help me see things more clearly. While reading Patti Callahan Henry’s latest novel, The Stories We Tell, my odd little brain kept circling back to kintsugi: the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold, silver or platinum, deliberately highlighting the broken places. The damaged pieces of an object are not treated as badges of shame, to be concealed and covered over, but simply facets of being; something to be illuminated and celebrated, art in its own right. It’s absolutely stunning, and a fascinating concept: the idea that something could be all the more beautiful for having been broken.

This is not the philosophy of Eve Morrison, the narrator and protagonist of The Stories We Tell. She devotes so much attention to concealing and smoothing over all the cracks and fractures in her world that she doesn’t even see them anymore. The novel is almost over before she is able to verbally acknowledge that because she has spent so much time and energy over the years trying to make her life look good, she was simply unable to see how not good everything actually was.

To all outward appearances (and thanks to a lot of effort on Eve’s part), her life is … perfect. She and her husband Cooper are wealthy, successful, socially prominent, active in the community, and apparently happy. Things are not as they seem, however, and there are a lot of stresses and strains bubbling and brewing beneath the otherwise idyllic surface. There are financial and business concerns: Cooper’s e-magazine (devoted to all things Southern Gentlemen) is struggling, and he resents the attention Eve devotes to her letterpress business, The Fine Line, Ink. Their daughter, Gwen, is navigating (painfully) the road through adolescence, rebelling both openly and covertly, and Eve’s sister, Willa, has landed with the family while she gets back on her feet, both of which only add to the tension.

Their lives might have continued on in this vein indefinitely, minor fractures spiderwebbing across the facade of perfection, only to be covered up and plastered over, until a hot summer night brings everything to a head. The police show up to inform Eve that Cooper and Willa are in the hospital, badly injured in a car accident, and from there, everything else begins to unravel. Nothing about the wreck adds up, and Eve is faced with conflicting facts and accounts from all sides. As she probes deeper and deeper, trying to understand, she has to decide what is truth, what is fiction … and whom to believe.

It’s a difficult journey for Eve, in no small part because she is finally forced to accept the myriad imperfections in her life. One of the first things we learn about her is that “When I don’t think something is possible, I just don’t notice.” Subconsciously, she’s aware of these broken places, and works very hard to repair them, but she can’t even admit their existence to herself, let alone the rest of the world, until they are forcibly brought to her attention.

As indicated by the title, stories are at the heart of the novel: stories told, mistold, or even never told at all, with the truth somewhere in the intersection of the three. It seems to me that the stories we don’t tell are even more important than the ones we do; silence, deflection and omission can be much more powerful (and damaging) than words spoken aloud. As Eve discovers, real, imperfect truths, honestly spoken, are far better than perfect lies, whether given voice or merely implied by silence.

There are many aspects of this novel that resonated, that really struck a chord (or several) as I read, but two in particular stood out, at least to me. The first is the relationship between Willa and Eve, which should resonate deeply with anyone else who has a sister. For all the myriad ways in which my own sister and I are utterly and completely 100% different, for all the times that we bicker and argue, there are still those moments – flashes of absolutely perfect synchronization. It’s difficult to put into words, but it culminates in an instantof simply knowing that for a brief stretch of time we are totally in lockstep. Patti captures this beautifully, something I struggle to describe, the way siblings are drawn back together even as everything else threatens to pull them apart.

The other part of the novel that really stuck with me were the Ten Good Ideas- the main (and most popular) card line for The Fine Line, Ink. As a child, Eve and her childhood best friend chafed under the Thou Shalt Nots of the Ten Commandments, finding them too full of negativity and things not to do, and instead tried to create the Ten Good Ideas as definitive, positive actions to take to live a good live. As an adult, she and Willa revive them for her business, and they become an overarching theme as Eve tries to remember them, develop images and art associate with each idea, and create the final two rules (they were stopped and punished before they got that far). The Ten Ideas are beautiful, fun, haunting, and thought-provoking, for both Eve and the reader. As the novel opens, Eve’s life had seemed to completely revolve around what to avoid, rather than what to embrace, but as time goes on, she finds the truth of the Ideas in her own life, makes them a part of her story and not just words on a card.

Something to consider, as we tell our own stories.



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