In Case We’re Separated is a beautiful collection: cheeky, compassionate and minutely observed. In 13 connected stories, traveling back and forth within the latter half of the 20th century, Alice Mattison brings alive four generations of a Jewish-American family: grandparents, parents, brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts, babies, all busy working, loving, arguing, celebrating, coupling, uncoupling, worrying (there’s a lot of worrying), caring for one another, growing old.
These are primarily urban stories, set in the neighborhoods of Boston, New Haven and New York. (The first pages of “I Am Not Your Mother,” however, take place in an unidentified shtetl and segments of “Boy In Winter” in a small Wisconsin town. “The Odds It Would Be You,” the elegiac coda, is set on a lake in the Adirondacks.)
The award-winning first story, “In Case We’re Separated,” takes place in Brooklyn in the early 50’s where we meet Bobbie Kaplowitz, her young son, Bradley, and Edwin, her married boyfriend. Also appearing are bossy Aunt Sylvia and her children, and Edwin’s family. The narrative tone is set: spare, funny, heart-breaking.
The stories evolve against the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic, the war in Vietnam, the Kennedy assassination. (In “Changes,” “Kennedy had died and it was possible to change.”) Throughout, the writing is idiosyncratic and warm, but Mattison’s emotional palette is broad. In “I Am Not Your Mother” particularly, it deepens into startling carnality.
The final story, “The Odds It Would Be You,” is a tender gem. The setting is rural, the volume lowered, the pace slowed as Mattison brings the focus around again to Bobbie and Bradley. Decades have passed, the balance has shifted as a grown, deephearted Bradley slowly paddles his mother, now gravely ill, across the wide waters of a pastoral lake.