Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Pretty Girl, by Debra Spark

Debra Spark's book, “The Pretty Girl,” is an unusual compilation: a novella followed by six short stories. This got me to thinking about some of the conundrums authors face. At some point in the writing process, the question arises as to how long the story will be: flash (super short), short story, novella or novel.

The novella, “The Pretty Girl” (the book and the novella have the same title), explores the relationship between Andrea, a young woman, her spinster Great Aunt Rose and one of Rose's paintings. From the start, there's an air of mystery about Rose's painting, which symbolically carries the weight of a family secret. With each turn of the plot, Spark brings us in a little closer, all the while maintaining suspense. At the novella's end, the story blossoms and satisfies, its secrets finally revealed.

The novella is followed by six short stories, each of which showcase Spark's considerable talents in painting multi-dimensional characters—outwardly successful, yet with slippery motivations and interior landscapes riddled with self-doubt and confusion. As each of the stories progresses, its characters unfold and facets of their personalities are slowly revealed. Reading a Spark story is a little like touring an old house using a flashlight—individual rooms light briefly and only at the end do we see how each contributes to the whole. Certain elements in Spark's work weave in and out of each story and form a thematic undercurrent: art and the creative life, the older generation's legacy and Judaism. These elements give the stories a common thread.

In the short story “Conservation,” Spark gives us a nuanced portrayal of Dana, an art restorer who finds herself inching further away from her husband as the borders of her marriage dissolve. In the story “I Should Let You Go,” we see the relationship between two sisters, Ginny and Cara, and learn how Ginny's life plays out after Cara dies of breast cancer. In another story, “Lady of the Wild Beasts,” we meet Sharon Berger, and see her beginning to come to terms with the fallout from the schizophrenia suffered by Jane, her cartoonist twin sister.

“A Wedding Story” is the last offering in the collection and the most magical of Spark's pieces. Spark tips her hat to old Hasidic folktales, naming one of the characters Rabbi Simon Baal Shem. On a personal note, my family claims descendancy from the Baal Shem Tov, the rabbi credited with founding Hasidic Judaism, but don't believe for a minute that this is why the story stole my heart. “A Wedding Story” features a miniature rabbi (Simon Baal Shem), who pops out of a chocolate egg and advises Rachel Rubenstein on matters of the heart. The story is about bashert, the Jewish concept of fate, which usually pertains to romance.

“The Pretty Girl” and its realistic characters and stunningly crafted stories left me changed. All this, and a tiny rabbi named Simon Baal Shem. That the “The Pretty Girl,” recommended by a writing friend, found its way to me seems nothing less than bashert.