Guest Review: Jill Stegman

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Ideas of Heaven
Joan Silber
250 pp.
Norton

Joan Silber’s “Ring of Stories” weaves six distinctive voices together with stunning dexterity. From a young poet in 1500’s Venice, to an aging homosexual dancer in modern day New York, the characters seem like people we know. This is due to Silber’s beautifully nuanced, understated style which allows us to examine the lives of the characters in their own words and pulls us into each compelling and unique world.

Silber obviously did a considerable amount of research into time and place to succeed so well in convincing us we were reading fiction. Four of the selections, “My Shape,” “Ideas of Heaven,” “Gaspara Stampa,” and “The High Road,” felt particularly autobiographical. The protagonists told their stories simply, revealing themselves by their actions and attitudes. Although not all of the main characters were sympathetic, it was easy to fall under the spell of their personalities and feel an intimate involvement in the joys and sorrows of their lives.


All of the stories were almost small epics, covering large spans of time in the lives of the narrators. This technique is fairly unusual in the current short story form, but Silber accomplished it by focusing on the most intimate scenes and thoughts through first person narration. It allowed the reader to fully participate in the lives of the protagonists and actually see the consequences of their actions.

Tragedies were often told through narration, in an unemotional, detached manner, as if the protagonist was looking back wistfully, but with no regrets for the path chosen. For instance, Alice, in “My Shape,” is more distraught over the realization that she will never be a dancer on Broadway than she is over the end of her marriage. The young poet in “Gaspara Stampa,” accepts life as a mistress to men she can never can never marry because of her lower socio/economic status. She follows her heart, choosing love over a passionless spinsterhood.

A small drawback was the use of “Ring of Stories” as a subtitle. It appeared contrived, as if at an editor’s request, to make the collection more saleable. Some kind of interconnectivity seems to be a marketing technique currently imposed on short story collections. This is unnecessary. If the stories are truly interconnected, it will be obvious to the reader.

The book jacket states the stories involve themes of “How sex and religion become parallel forms of comfort.” Such summarizing cannot do service to the complexity of the characters and themes in “Ideas of Heaven.” A more accurate statement of a link among these stories is how men and women accept the consequences of their actions, relying upon the strength of their love and faith. It is a theme which links us all.

Elizabeth, in “Ideas of Heaven,” will not counter her husband when he refuses to allow his family to leave China, despite evidence of upcoming catastrophe. She says, “But now the thought of leaving here had become to me what opium must be to people who sell whatever they own for it.” Why doesn’t she follow her instincts and abandon her husband? Why not flee? By the time we complete the story, we know why.

As a contrast, the one character who does not accept his life is the dancer Duncan, from “The High Road.” Early on, Duncan’s choice is to lead the life of a gay man and sever connections with his wife and children. He finds joy and passion in his new lifestyle, but is ultimately left alone and unloved. His lovers have left, his physique has deteriorated and, in the absence of faith, his passion has turned bitter.

Jill Stegman is a high school teacher living on the central coast of California. Her stories have recently appeared in Isotope and North Atlantic Review. She is currently working on a short story collection about the relationship of Californians to their natural world.

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