HONEYDEW. By Edith Pearlman. Little, Brown. 275 pages. $25.
Edith Pearlman is having a moment.
At age 78, after publishing more than 200 short stories over five decades, most in small literary magazines, Pearlman is being recognized as one of the finest American writers of short fiction. Her new collection, “Honeydew,” will cement that burgeoning reputation.
Pearlman, who has lived for most of her life in Massachusetts and for a time made her living as a computer programmer, had three collections of short stories published by small presses beginning in 1996, but those books never made a big splash. Then her exquisite 2011 collection, “Binocular Vision,” won the National Book Critics Circle Award, in addition to being a finalist for the National Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Story Prize, and many more readers discovered her work.
Now comes “Honeydew,” her fifth book and the first to be published by a major house, along with a profile in the New York Times and an unprecedented wave of publicity.
“Honeydew” deserves the fuss. Its 20 beautifully crafted stories firmly place Pearlman among the ranks of such modern masters of the form as Alice Munro and John Updike.
Pearlman’s most frequent subjects are shared with those two writers, too: relationships within families and between men and women, and the universal and utterly personal experiences of love and death. Yet her stories are never predictable.
The book opens with “Tenderfoot,” a story that takes its name from a small-town pedicure parlor. It’s run by Paige, a middle-age woman whose husband joined the Marines “mainly to get further mechanical training at the military’s expense. ... And then, three days into the desert, the tank he was riding met a mine. Each of his parts was severed from the others, and his whole — his former whole — was severed from Paige.”
That leaves her cut off as well, from her grief. But she connects with her customers, who treat her services as “a kind of secular confessional” as they discover what a good listener she is.
Bobby, a teacher recently separated from his wife, moves into town and finds that his rented upper-floor rooms give him a perfect vantage point to watch Paige at work across the street, a pastime that grows fascinating. “He thought of buying binoculars, but she wasn’t a bird. He thought of dragging out his opera glasses, but she wasn’t a soprano. He thought of employing his loupe, but she wasn’t a work of art, and even if she had been a painting, he was too far away to examine brushstrokes.”
“Castle 4” is set in and around a hospital, a “red-brick High Victorian Gothic” building that locals call the Castle. It’s a fairy-tale castle with a grim twist, housing “beautiful ladies-in-waiting — waiting to die; and crones whose futures were no happier; and tremulous knights; and bakers with envelopes of magic spices.”
As she often does in her stories, Pearlman weaves together realism and subtle mythic or fairy-tale elements. A circle of lonely people are all associated with the Castle: a socially awkward anesthesiologist, a widowed security guard, the security guard’s sixth-grade daughter and the boy she has a secret crush on, a gift shop manager who shakes things up by adding a tiny cafe serving delectable sweets, and a woman in her 30s dying of cancer.
A kind of delicate magic gradually ties them all together.
The book’s title story is its last, and it does not come from the pale-green melon. We learn about this honeydew from a bright teenager named Emily Knapp, who is fascinated by insects, such as the tiny sap-eating bugs called Coccidae. “Emily liked the story of Moses leading the starving Israelites into the desert. Insects came to their rescue. Of course, the manna, which Exodus describes as a fine frost on the ground with a taste like honey, was thought to be a miracle from God, but it was really Coccidae excrement.”
Emily is not eating honeydew, however, or much of anything else. Her painfully visible anorexia is a challenge for her parents: her father, Richard, a physician and professor used to being in control, and her glamorous French mother, Ghiselle, whose frustration with her child is edging into rage.
The story opens with their meeting with Alice Toomey, headmistress of Emily’s school, Caldicott Academy. Alice is frustrated with Emily, too: “This tall bundle of twigs that called itself a girl — Alice’s palms ached to spank her.” Alice has other ties to the Knapps: She’s having an affair with Richard and is newly pregnant with his child.
You might think you could guess how these tangled relationships will play out, but Pearlman, as always, has a sleight of heart up her sleeve.