Honeydew by Edith Pearlman, book review: A perfume of the purest emotion


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The Independent Culture

The much-anticipated Honeydew, Edith Pearlman's second collection to be published here in the UK, comprises stories gleaned from the 78-year-old New Englander's back catalogue – 40-odd years of publishing in small literary magazines, before her fourth volume, Binocular Vision, found commercial success in 2013.

The majority of the 20 stories in the collection are set in the fictional Massachusetts suburb of Godolphin, "a wedge of Boston", that fans of her work will already be familiar with.

There are a handful of characters that befit this Cheever-ish setting. The flat-chested title character from "My Cousin Jamie" whose two front teeth overlap – "no boobs, too aristocratic for orthodontia", a girl from "a certain type of family": "Connecticut – money so old it's gone."

Or the woman in "Assisted Living" buying a dining room table and chairs from Forget Me Not – Godolphin's antique shop, whose proprietor Rennie, known for her "discretion and restraint", appears in a handful of stories. It is a wedding present for her son on the occasion of his third marriage and she optimistically declares: "Fine furniture can anchor a relationship." But these are joined by figures from far and wide: circumcised women from an unnamed African country in "What the Ax Forgets the Tree Remembers"; a Jewish family from Jerusalem in "Cul-de-sac"; and a New York nanny with a drawer full of herbs who daydreams of her aunt's "little house on stilts, and the foaming sea" in "Dream Children."

Pearlman strikes mercilessly at the pressure points of her subjects' lives in a manner reminiscent of Muriel Spark, not least because of the lightness of her touch. A young girl who grows up to learn that the "happy enough" her mother promised her has indeed been "more than most people are granted"; or the telling admission by a group of Godolphin friends: "We mean so little to each other." Her crowning glory, however, is her ability to distil the essence of her stories with the precise grace of a master chemist. She can sum up a setting in one sentence – "Saturday nights he takes me to the dining room at his club: long windows, long portraits, a lengthy evening" – or even a single word – a kitchen full of people "steamed in happiness": the verb says it all. In "Puck", Rennie listens to a customer's confession of a now distant affair: "The space between the two women seemed to have been sprayed with attar of sentiment."

The same could be said of Honeydew; a perfume of the purest emotion hangs in the air, delicately coating but never drowning Pearlman's prose. Although it's still only January, I'd put money on this being one of the best short story collections of the year.