Perils of middle-age dating at heart of Michigan writer Lisa Lenzo's new 'Strange Love' collection
While she claims to view dating after divorce with a wary eye, Annie tries, sometimes against overwhelming evidence, to Änd a good side in everyone -- including the men she keeps picking up on the beach in Saugatuck in "Strange Love," Lisa Lenzo's second collection of linked short stories.
Lenzo will be kicking off several statewide appearances, beginning in Kalamazoo on July 12, where she'll join National Book Award Änalist Bonnie Jo Campbell ("Once Upon A River") and Andy Mozina ("Quality Snacks") at the Kalamazoo Public Library's Central branch from 3 to 5 p.m. (See below for the date and time of Lenzo's other appearances.)
"Strange Love" opens when Annie, a writer who pays the bills by driving a bus, has been divorced for two years and is getting a master's degree from Western Michigan University and living in a two-room apartment with her eight-year-daughter, Marly. Her third "room" is a poster of a still life by Matisse, with a chair, a wooden table, a vase of peonies, a bowl of peaches, and a book left open on the table. Later, as Marly grows up, Annie buys a farmhouse in Saugatuck, which, as a gay mecca, doesn't offer her much scope for Änding men.
Annie's men are invariably high-maintenance – including a doctor who is so germophobic he can't eat food unless he "autoclaves" it in the microwave, and maybe not even then if other people are around. (He also views his parents' dog as an argument against evolution.)
Then there's the skittish 48-year-old with a heart condition, who accuses Annie of being sexually aggressive when she rubs his back.
The seemingly nicest one is also the one who does the most long-term damage: A divorced father of four who ends up getting cold feet, twice. Living near Lake Michigan acts as a balm, as Annie swims for miles to exorcise the pain.
When one boyfriend breaks up with her because she isn't a comedian, Annie debates cracking more jokes. But ultimately, she doesn't care to audition for the role of girlfriend.
"The world is funny enough, without its even trying," she says. "All my life I've been surrounded by humor and absurdity, and it has seemed silly to try to add very much to what is already a surplus."
And her most important relationship isn't with the boyfriends; it's with Marly, who, during the course of the stories, grows up, moves to Grand Rapids, becomes a photographer and studies veterinary tech. The most devastating argument in the book isn't a break-up. It comes in "Aliens," when 13-year-old Marly arrives home from her dad's house with her head shaved and a list of requirements that her mom must fulÄll not to embarrass her in front her friends. These don't include "breathing," but do include "no asking stupid questions," "no trying to have conversations with my friends" and "no trying to be funny (it is hopeless)."
While some of us might use this occasion to show up at school in a clown costume warbling a serenade, Annie, a gentler soul, is reduced to crying in the bathroom. Mom and daughter ultimately move past the Äght -- mostly by not talking about it. p>
"But I will never read out loud to her again," she writes. "We won't talk about it, we'll simply stop, in the middle of the book we had chosen, whose name I will forget."
One of the strongest stories in the collection is "Strays," which won Ärst place in "The Georgetown Review" contest for 2013. (Lenzo's other awards include a Hemingway Days Festival Award and a PEN Syndicated Fiction Project Award.)
The story focuses on Marly's propensity for collecting strays, which was not a problem when it was baby bunnies and abandoned possums, but has become more problematic now that it's unemployed boyfriends and a homeless guy who started living on her porch in Grand Rapids. That dangerous side of Marly's personality becomes even more clear in "Flames," when Marly's boyfriend comes home drunk and breaks her door down three times in one night, leaving her panicked mother considering whether murder might not be the wisest course of action.
"Maybe a feminist lawyer would take up my case, and I'd go free, and if I did end up in prison, at least I'd have a lot of time to read," Annie thinks. (Instead of buying a gun, she buys a cell phone, so that, if Marly is ever in danger again, she can start driving toward her daughter immediately, instead of having to listen, feeling helpless, on the kitchen phone.)
Throughout the nine stories, there are many tossed-off lines that capture the collection's appealing, deadpan tone. One tantalizing aside in "Strange Love" has me committed to go back and pick up Lenzo's Ärst story collection, "Within the Lighted City," which was chosen by Ann Beattie for the 1997 John Simmons Short Fiction Award. Annie is talking about a memoir she's writing "which tells the story of when I quit high school and took off to live in the woods."
When one guy asks her what she thinks about death – on their Ärst meeting, Annie thinks bemusedly, "What is it with the men I date?"
Well, at least she never went out with the guy who claimed he could "show wommin a lotta fun" or the man who listed "n/a" under "Last Book Read" on his dating proÄle.Yvonne Zipp is MLive's book critic. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her other book reviews here.