No 412 Like Life by Lorrie Moore Book 8 of #20booksofsummer21

A character in the opening story of Like Life muses on how lost she feels, wondering ‘How did one get here? How did ones eye-patched, rot-toothed life lead one so cruelly, like a trick, to the middle of the sea?’ It is a question that many of the characters in these perceptive and poignant stories could ask themselves, as they all find themselves adrift struggling with disappointment, displacement and the possibility of finding stability in their lives.

The collection focuses on characters who are a little lost, wrestling with doubts and aimlessness, and wondering how they have wound up where they are. ‘You could look at your life and no longer recognise it’ thinks a bored cheese shop worker in Joy, while another has a revealing response to being told she has ‘precancer’ – ‘Precancer?’, she asks her doctor, ‘Isn’t that…like life?’ – giving the collection its title.

Here are a jumble of lives that are merely like life, existences that feature conflicted temporary relationships played out in strange, temporary places, where discomfort seems to be the main factor. The lead character of Two Boys lives above a meat company and must step over the blood on the sidewalk every morning. She escapes her concerns about which of her two boyfriends to commit to by sitting in the park reading, only to be continually spat at by an eleven year old girl.

A playwright in Vissi d’Arte lives above a sex shop and refuses to sell out when he gets a lucrative offer to write for television. His girlfriend leaves in frustration but he maintains his moral high ground.  Quite how his good intentions are helping him is questionable as he is plagued by the fumes from truck engines on the street outside at night, while sewage fills up his bathtub during the day. Millie, a housewife obsessed with recycling in Places to Look for in Your Mind has control of her household, but not of the people in it, and finds herself unable to connect with either her husband, or her daughter. She yearns for her daughter’s approval and wonders ‘how one’s children got so powerful that way’.

Moore’s characters are all bright, self-aware people whose lives have been driven off course, mainly by love. They all yearn from it, but run from it at the same time. In The Jewish Hunter, a female poet finds unexpected connection with a man who watches documentaries about the Holocaust after they have sex, but ends the relationship despite her growing feelings for him, wanting instead to maintain the feeling of still having a different future ahead of her.

She should stay here with him, unorphan him with love’s unorphaning, live wise and simple in a world monstrous enough for years of whores and death, and poems of whores and death, so monstrous, how could one live at all? One has to build shelters. One had to make pockets and live inside them.

Despite the subject matter, the strength of Moore’s writing prevents these stories – most of which are about relatively unhappy people – from becoming dour of maudlin. She writes generously, with an eye for small detail a richness of character and a strong sense of place. New York in particular is vividly depicted, in all its glory, with the sidewalks and buildings, characters and places brought to striking life.

There is a way of walking in New York, midevening, in the big blocky East Fifties, that causes the heart to open up and the whole city to rush in and make a small town there…It is there, it is yours, no longer outwitting you.

The collection also features a great deal of wry humour. A moustache looks like ‘it had crawled up to find a warm spot to die’ while hands move ‘like small rodents kept as pets’. Each story is exquisitely structured and even in the darker stories, featuring death or illness Moore manages to maintain a sense of warmth and humour in both her depictions and her characterisations.

There is a tenderness to the writing, and some beautiful passages, that emphasise the need to accept the small moments of joy that we experience in life, rather than waiting for that elusive state of acceptance and happiness.

Through the window, the streetlights shimmered a pale green, and the moon shone woolly and bitten. Hane looked at his wife. She had the round, drying face of someone who once and briefly – a long ago fall, a weekend perhaps – been very pretty without even knowing it. “You’re my only friend”, he said, and he kissed her, hard on the brow, like a sign for her to hold close.

In the end, all eight stories in Like Life are about connection, our need for it, how hard it can be to find and how impossible it is to maintain. A character in the pithy Starving Again, who hates talking on the telephone, feels: ‘People talking were meant to look at a face, the disastrous cupcake of it, the hide-and-seek of the heart dashing across.’

The heart dashes across all these pages, to create a universal, rewarding and exhilarating reading experience.


20 Books of Summer The 746

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

8 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I almost had a visceral reaction to some of what you shared. Very powerful story telling, looks like. I hardly ever reach for short stories but this collection is something I’d consider.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve never baked with cherries, believe it or not. I love to eat them fresh, though! I’ve had some excellent ones this summer. 🙂
    Favorite book of June… hmmm…probably Stoner? Or my re-read of Animal Dreams. Let’s call it a tie.


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