Earlier this week, Molly Antopol wrote about Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. Her debut story collection, The UnAmericans, was published this week by W. W. Norton & Company. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.
I imagine many of us can remember exactly where we were when we encountered a favorite book — when we felt our lives had been irrevocably changed by a story. I had just graduated college and was living in Jerusalem when I came upon Edith Pearlman’s first book, Vaquita and Other Stories, in a used bookstore on Yoel Solomon Street (the store unfortunately no longer exists). Later that day, sitting on the grass in Independence Park, I fell in love with her characters: passionate and courageous, self-aware and sometimes solitary. The stories oftentimes examined what it meant to live in the postwar diaspora, bringing us into the lives of people in settings as disparate as Jerusalem, Boston and Central America. The story I loved most was the title story, in which a Polish-Jewish doctor serves as minister of health under a dictatorship in an unnamed Latin American country. The year I read Vaquita was the year I first started writing — and over the next decade, while I worked away on my own stories, I consistently turned to Pearlman’s other collections for inspiration: How to Fall, Love Among the Greats, and published a few years ago, a gorgeous anthology of her selected works, Binocular Vision.
At this point in my life, I’ve only lived in the world as someone’s daughter (rather than someone’s mother) and many of the writers I’ve often felt the deepest kinship with — Grace Paley, Alice Munro, Cynthia Ozick, Natalia Ginzburg, to list a few — write so intimately and compassionately about motherhood. I feel this about Edith Pearlman in spades. I’ve never met Pearlman, but I’ve looked to her stories in the same way I might have turned to a beloved and trusted relative for advice. Many of the most important things I’ve learned about writing I gleaned from reading Pearlman: that some of the best, and most satisfying, story collections aren’t woven together by character or by a particular place, but by something as ephemeral as theme — displacement, heartbreak, the secrets we keep from the people closest to us. That stories can be as expansive, complicated and emotionally messy as real life — and that it is immensely satisfying to read about that messiness when it’s depicted through lean, precise prose; meaningful sentences that are poetically compressed. And most of all, that while stories remind us that life is filled with both hope and heartbreak, my task as a writer is to make sense of the most painful and complicated parts, controlling that pain through language and shaping it into a narrative, rather than letting it consume me.
Molly Antopol is a recent Wallace Stegner Fellow and current Jones Lecturer at Stanford University. She’s a recipient of the 5 Under 35 award from the National Book Foundation. Her debut story collection, The UnAmericans, was published this week by W. W. Norton & Company. Read more about her here.