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Monday, May 19, 2014

The UnAmericans: Stories

Talk about getting punched in the face by a literary piece of astoundment. (I just this very moment made up this word specifically for this book, y'all.) This is Molly Antopol's marvelous collection of short stories, The UnAmericans. 

A father fears that his daughter's Off-Broadway play will reveal his inadequacies as a parent. A woman smuggles art out of Moscow and becomes one of the greatest collectors of the dissident art movement. An actor tries to reconnect with his young son after serving time for his communist ties in the McCarthy era. A young journalist in Jerusalem takes up with a widowed father only to find that he needs her help in understanding his own daughter more than he actually needs her.

This collection was outstanding. Wholeheartedly, honestly, painstakingly outstanding. It is clear how much heart Antopol has put into each and every story and how dearly she understands and protects and sets free each of these characters in turn. Each is written with such openness and such pathos, each with an Achilles heel for family and for what it means to be human. It is a collection of stories that is insightful and moving, all while still being so raw and open about each character's humanity.

The first story in the book, "The Old World," is about a middle aged widowed owner of a dry cleaning buisness who meets a younger Ukranian immigrant; she clings to him based on their shared heritage, even though the businessman has never been to his family's home country. He asks her to marry him; she agrees. On their honeymoon to her hometown, he realizes that he will never be able to compete with the ghosts of her past. It is a shattering story that broke me. The love and the openness that this man has for his new young wife, and the willingness to go to battle with his daughter and his son-in-law over it, is enough to also break you when this mismatched couple steps into their hotel in Kiev and the walls come crumbling down.

My absolute favorite story, however, was "The Quietest Man," which tells of a man whose daughter is coming to visit. She will bring with her the draft of her soon-to-be-produced-Off-Broadway play, and he has every intention of finding out how she chooses to portray him. He is convinced this family drama must be his own nightmare, and this feeds the first days of his daughter's visit. It takes him finding a willingness to speak with his daughter as an autonomous young daughter to discover he has been walking down the wrong path the whole time. It is him that she admires, not that she despises. I found this to be a moving and heart-stopping tale of a relationship gone wrong, one that should never have been so ill in the first place but which sometimes cannot be helped. I adored this story to the depths of my soul.

I was blessed to be able to speak with Molly via webcam thanks to the MashReads hangout, and I asked her if she had ever thought of turning one of these stories into a play. Her work was so theatrical in its telling that I could see any one of these stories as either a film or a play. I could especially see the nuanced tale of "The Quietest Man" retold on stage. All of these stories were so genuine and lovingly told; I would recommend this collection effusively.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

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