Thursday, March 03, 2011

Quiet Americans by Erica Dreifus

What I love about short story collections is also what can put me off: the coherence of the stories. So it is refreshing when the stories in a collection hang together in a way that each story complements or adds to the others, and yet still brings something fresh to the mix. Some people might call this unevenness in a collection, but I think unevenness occurs when some stories aren’t up to the craft or storytelling of the others. I actually don’t like story collections where the stories are overly-thematically linked, or where I feel the stories hit the same note again and again.
The Quiet Americans includes stories in different styles, with various narrative approaches and most of the stories reach a consistently high level of craft and storytelling. The first story in the collection “For Services Rendered,” set a tone that would not have been welcome if it had been maintained for the entire book.  Luckily, the second story, “Matrilineal Descent,” employed a different structure and voice. The jump between the two modeled the leaps that occur throughout the book. While the book overall presents some coherent themes relating to the Holocaust, family, survival, and secrecy, different stories deal pick up various strands, some themes disappear only to be picked up a few stories later. The different stories and themes accumulate to evoke emotions and ideas that resonate together without becoming overbearing.
“For Services Rendered,” which starts the book, begins with a Jewish doctor in Berlin, then follows the doctor and his family to the United States. I understand why this story starts the book. The book begins in Germany and moves to the United States, just as the stories demonstrate the shift from the effects on one generation to how those effects filter down through generations. But I really loved the next story, “Matrilineal Descent,” and one reason might be because the voice shifts so radically, from a more distant, observing third-person to a third-person that is really a first-person with very specific views about the story. The voice of this story fantastically weaves  opinionated asides into a story that is told almost like a fairy tale. I was glad that later stories dealt with characters who were part of this family, and I found myself wishing that there would be even more stories, continuing the lives of these characters. Perhaps there is a novel in there, waiting to be finished.
Overall, this collection won me over slowly, story by story. I was a bit worried that the stories might focus too exclusively on the generation who survived World War II and the Holocaust, but what I ultimately enjoyed about these stories was the ways in which they traced the influence of that generation on each successive generation, not just through genealogy, but through omission and exclusion as well. The stories connect to one another in meaningful and sometimes surprising ways, illuminating the silences and secrets in our dark pasts. 


Erika Dreifus said...

Thank you very much for this careful, considered reading of the book!

Michael Nichols said...

Interesting review. Quiet American is one of my all time favorites. Your review made me think Quiet Americans might be also. I will check it out. Thanks --Michael Nichols

Nik said...

This book sounds fascinating. I love how you describe the distinct kinds of narrator. I look particularly forward to checking out that close-3rd person.

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