Female characters navigate life choices in these intriguing and unsettling stories.

Published in the Miami Herald 4.20.09

Love Stories in This Town. Amanda Eyre Ward. Ballantine. 205 pages. $14 in paper.

When the world’s balance seems overturned, we naturally seek a constant. But what happens when there’s nothing solid to grab hold of? In her new short fiction collection, Amanda Eyre Ward weaves a sketch of a changing world in which love just might be the signal grounding force, even though her clever female characters must continually take risks while navigating its flowing contours.

The stories’ unsettling and intriguing first lines rocket the reader into Eyre Ward’s imagined landscapes. In the prosaicly titled Motherhood and Terrorism the initial sentences evoke a beheading and a baby shower; in Butte as Beautiful, a marriage proposal coincides with ”a masturbator loose in the library.” Once inside, Eyre Ward holds her audience alert not necessarily with arresting prose — though she provides such observant gems as Lola’s description of her daughter’s nose as ”a tiny comma, though her presence in my life seemed to be more of a period, or an endless ellipses” — but by creating a perpetual sense that something big is about to happen.

Because each story is also firmly seated in the cold grip of post-terrorist attack anxiety, the stage is set by the first tense and electric tale, Should I Be Scared, in which a young wife sells what’s most important for a supply of Cipro to keep her husband and herself safe in case of an anthrax attack.

Further uniting the two-part collection is an awareness of place — Maine, Montana, Texas — and its positive or negative effects on relationships and life. The prospect of home haunts each character, including Kimmy and Greg in The Stars are Bright in Texas, who search for their dream home just two days after losing their baby, but finding the perfect Pottery Barn or HGTV-style home can’t replace a lost family or make them happy. Yet in On Messalonskee Lake, a cabin in the Maine woods is one couple’s touchstone until parenthood pulls them apart.

Focusing solely on female protagonists allows Eyre Ward to unpack women’s ways of coping and piloting their path, which, for all but one includes motherhood, the perfect metaphor for a collection pregnant with fear, uncertainty and desire for safety, happiness and love. In the remaining six stories, Eyre Ward concentrates solely on a 10-year-span in the life of peripatetic Lola Wilkerson, who also appears once in part one.

Exploring the arc of Lola’s life choices, whether she’s eloping in Vegas with a man she barely knows or moving to a Saudi Arabia buzzing with anti-American violence, Eyre Ward delivers a more robust vision of how trust and taking chances are integral to moving forward. But while each story generally ends well, usually with an abrupt realization that provokes change or decision, what remains is the characters’ uncomfortable, often awkward reality, in which nothing lasts, and there are no easy answers. But as Eyre Ward reminds us, sometimes such fragmentary comfort is enough because “[t]here are plenty of things worse than having a home, and doing what you have to do to stay there.”