November Storm by Robert Oldshue

Review published on August 5, 2017.

Robert Oldshue, a physician from Boston, USA, won the Iowa Short Fiction Award for this volume of short stories published last year. Composed of nine stories, four of them narrated in the first person and the other five in the third person, it is a richly varied collection that dwells on the fragility of life and health and finds unexpected moments of human connection.

In the title story, which is among the book’s strongest, Doris and Ed are worried when their son Andy is late in arriving home for Thanksgiving. A snowstorm is expected and the supermarket from which they’ve ordered their meal cancels the delivery. Determined to get their food anyway, Doris drives to Wegmans herself and gets talking to the spiky-haired teen who carries her order to the car. The impending storm creates a heightened atmosphere, and themes of class insecurity and the fear of old age enter subtly.

While that one reminded me of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, the following story, “The Receiving Line,” called to mind Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees (specifically the story “The Other Man”). It has a terrifically in-your-face first line: “It was 1978, and I was gay, and I was poor, and, when necessary, I made a little money from sex.” Set in the years just before and just after HIV came to public attention, it’s an affecting portrayal of a married maths teacher who’s living a double life.

My other favourite story has Dr. William Welker, a psychiatrist who trained at “Mass Mental” (a nickname for the Massachusetts Mental Health Centre), losing interest in and not listening to his patients. Thinking about the new couple he’s being sent for marriage counselling plunges him back into memories of his sexual partners, his training, and one particularly ill-fated couple he had dealings with years ago.

Other stories focus on a meeting between a cemetery security guard and an old man visiting his wife’s future burial plot, a daughter’s high-risk pregnancy, a girl’s research into her family’s history during the Holocaust, and a boy who’s cat-sitting for his neighbours. Hospitals and nursing homes are recurring settings, yet the tone is often light, especially in the final story, “The Home of the Holy Assumption.” A few stories had endings that puzzled me or simply passed me by, and the run-on nature of some of the sentences (such as the one quoted above) grated a bit. Overall, though, this is a rewarding collection that I can recommend to readers who don’t ordinarily go in for short stories.

Rebecca Foster 3/4

November Storm by Robert Oldshue
University of Iowa Press 9781609384517 pbk Aug 2016

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