A Review: “Relative Strangers”

Katherine Mansfield, the British writer who tried to free herself from “the tyranny of plot,” might admire Margaret Hermes’ short story collection Relative Strangers. Rather than following the conventions of traditionally plotted short fiction, her engaging narratives are the sort that make up the lives of families, stories that we tell to each other sitting at the kitchen table over cups of coffee, or on the back porch beside a six-pack of beer.

Hermes writes first in long hand, and then plunks out typescripts using her index fingers, resulting in stories that not only offer situations and characters that could have occurred in our own families, but prize-winning fiction: Relative Strangers won the 2011 Doris Bakwin Award.

A native of Chicago who now lives in St. Louis, Margaret Hermes has visited Door County most summers since she was a child. While she has traveled widely and lived for a time in the eastern part of the United States, she regards herself as “a Midwesterner at her core.” The title story “Relative Strangers” is set in a family lake house in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

Although other pieces in the collection take place much further away, the theme that connects them and subsequently brings them closer to home is that of relationships, sometimes romantic, sometimes generational, but all in the family. Despite the intimacies of family life, whether illicit couples or socially sanctioned marriage partners, or the ties of blood connecting parents and children (or others on the family tree), at heart Hermes’ characters find themselves relative strangers in some aspects of their life. Secrets are revealed (as in the title story), marriages end, and children feel estranged from their parents.

But these are not tales wallowing in melodrama. TS Eliot wrote, “This is the way the world ends: not with a bang but a whimper,” and such is the case with Hermes’ protagonists; they do what we do: muddle on, make do, get their lives together as best they can.

In “Second Lover,” a writer woman’s husband leaves her with their two kids for a younger woman. Annie hopes to rent out her third floor to a graduate student for extra cash and household help. When no renter appears, she writes a story about her rental fantasy, one that includes romance with a grad student from Germany. And then an actual renter does take the third floor, life imitating art.

The story that follows in the collection, “Foreign Exchange,” is the narrative that Annie purportedly wrote, the fictional equivalent of a box within a box.

One of this reader’s favorites is “Growing Season,” a coming of age tale that occurs when 15-year-old Alan is sent to live with his childless aunt and uncle by parents who view him as an inconvenience in their lives. The boy finds contentment living with the couple, and exciting romance with a neighbor girl. The story ends:

“So,’ he [Uncle Avram] said, “this is the summer you lost your innocence…Now I have something to ask you, Alan. Did you love the girl?”

I was surprised by the question, surprised that he thought me old enough to answer it, and then surprised that I had no answer to give.

“No?” he said. “Not love. Ah well, then you did not lose enough. You are still young,” he comforted himself. “There is still time. Maybe next summer, eh?”

But there would be no next summer for Uncle Avram. Later Aunt Mimi wrote that the doctors at the hospital said that he had been burdened with an enlarged heart. I could have told them that.

He was buried two towns away, where there was a Jewish cemetery. Right after – even my mother was surprised at how fast – Aunt Mimi sold the farm and left for California.

Margaret Hermes will read from and sign copies of Relative Strangers at Novel Ideas Bookstore in Baileys Harbor at 12:30 pm on July 15. She will also sign copies at Book World in Sturgeon Bay from 11 am – 2 pm on July 21.