Polly Dugan is the award-winning author of So Much a Part of You, which writer Alan Heathcock said “announces the arrival of a potent and fresh new voice” in fiction. Her second book, The Sweetheart Deal, will be published in May by Little Brown & Company. A former employee of Powell’s Books, she is an alumna of the Tin House Writer’s Workshop and a reader at Tin House magazine. Her short fiction has been featured as a Narrative Story of the Week and awarded an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers contest. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
The next best thing to binge-reading authors I love—Paul Auster, James Herriot, John Irving, Stephen King, Carolyn Keene and Nancy Drew—is reading a succession of great books by different authors. It’s not an easy or likely thing to accomplish, luck-wise. I’m sure I’m not the only reader to have been deeply affected by a book, to absorb the characters and their plights and carry them around with me, only to have the next book I start pale by comparison for simply suffering the bad timing of being the book with the tough act to follow.
So I felt extremely lucky this summer, around the time my book was published, to discover not one or two, but four books that delivered story and language and reader investment in such a way that I couldn’t help but picture all four of them together raising the bar high as a team, creating a very daunting height indeed. Of the four, two of the books were new to the world, and the other two were simply new to me.
The first was The Land of Steady Habits by Ted Thompson (March 2014). As a college student, I was an avid fan (and binge-reader) of John Cheever—that red mass market was so easy to take with me everywhere—and Thompson’s book reminded me so much of the complicated, conflicted, privileged and tragically comic characters who populate Cheever’s stories. It’s thoroughly brilliant. I sent a note to Ted after I’d finished reading it, telling him that, as a reader, I wanted to immediately go back and read it again, and as a writer, it was a book I wish I’d written myself.
The next two books I picked up were Mary and O’Neil (2001) by Justin Cronin and The Blessings by Elise Juska (May 2014). Though they were published over a decade apart, both books had been floating around in my periphery, popping up in my Friday New York Times Book Updates email or another outlet, and so I’d listed them on my to-read post-its. And then in June two reviews very generously made some comparisons between The Blessings and my linked story collection, So Much a Part of You. For years I’d had my eye on Cronin’s book because of the acclaim it received, including being a Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award recipient, and after having written a book in the same form—Cronin’s is billed as “a novel in stories”—I love to see how other writers work within that structure. And, the form is one of my personal favorites. I consumed Juska’s and Cronin’s books in the most perfect way: reading until your eyelids surrender and you simply cannot read another word, and so you fall asleep with the book open, right there to pick up when you awaken the next morning.
Both Juska and Cronin channel the deep spectrum of human emotions in such a way that it seemed I knew the people in these novels, and that I had felt their experiences. My experience was a thoroughly visceral one; while reading both books, I didn’t so much weep as sob. One afternoon I read Cronin’s book right up until the very minute I had to leave the house to pick up my kids from school. I did the best I could to clean up after my tears, lest another parent misinterpret and assume I’d just come from receiving bad news. I took Juska’s book with me to one of my son’s fall baseball games. I kept opening and closing the book, allowing myself time to collect myself and appreciate my immersion in it, prompting my husband to ask if I was okay. Both books contain an abundance of the beauties and struggles of life, the ways the human spirit prevails over the unavoidable losses we endure, the challenges and gifts of family.
Both Juska and Cronin (and Ted Thompson too) have mastered writing diverse points of view. They are equally sure-handed and authentic across genders, ages and stages of life and circumstance. If you read any portion of either of their books without knowing who wrote it, guessing whether the author was female or male would be a gamble.
And finally, both Juska’s and Cronin’s books resonated with me because from the first pages I recognized their characters: These are my people. Both books are based in or connected to Philadelphia and the northeast, where I hail from, and the Irish Catholic Blessing family is like so many I knew as a child, teenager and young adult. There was a comforting sense of “going home” reading these books because the writing in both captured distinct regional details. There’s a beautiful line in Juska’s book about how a character’s accent reveals they are from the area. It’s subtle and small and if you’re not familiar or haven’t experienced the same thing—as I have—you might miss it.
After three books, I thought my lucky streak had run out. But then I read This Is Where I Leave You (2009) by Jonathan Tropper. Just in the way Juska, Cronin and Thompson peel back the lives of WASPS and Irish Catholics, Tropper drops you in the room——in some cases in the chair——with a grieving Jewish family sitting shiva and makes you privy to all their quirks and flaws and histories. In many ways Tropper’s voice reminded me of Jami Attenberg’s in The Middlesteins or Steve Almond’s in Which Brings Me to You (which he co-wrote with Julianna Baggott). All three writers rely on humor—really laugh out loud stuff—to diffuse the tragedy/loss/heartbreak their characters are battling. There’s nothing irreverent or dismissive about successfully pulling off tragicomedy, it’s an advanced maneuver. Throughout This Is Where I Leave You I was consistently moved, amused and impressed. All the good page-turning stuff is there——infidelity, sex, marriage, parenting, siblings politics, gifted young men who seem invincible but in fact aren’t.
When I finished my winning reading streak and thought about it, I realized what all these books share——perhaps the singular reason I loved them all——is that they’re stories about families, told with naked candor, empathy, compassion and without apology. But ultimately the pathos is balanced with redemption and resilience. That’s the stuff for me, there’s nothing better.