>Ideas of Heaven

>by Joan Silber

This collection calls itself a “ring of stories,” and was recommended to me by Charles Baxter when I described to him the way the stories in my collection are linked—thematically, but also by characters who appear in one story and are the focal point of another. This is the connection here, although the “ring” is completed when the last story really complements the first. In “My Shape,” Alice is a dancer who marries a Frenchman but leaves him and takes dance lessons in New York from Duncan, but gives up and returns to Paris where she becomes Giles’s lover. In “The High Road” we see Duncan, who marries and divorces and becomes Andre’s lover, and then when he and Andre split he pines over a young singer, Carl, who becomes known for signing a cycle of poems by the Italian poet of the 16th Century, Gaspara Stampa. Alice is scarcely mentioned here. In “Gaspara Stampa,” the poets life of love and longing is detailed. In “Ashes of Love,” Tom is reading Rilke in Paris (a poem about Gaspara Stampa) when he meets Peggy, an American from Chicago. They fall in love and keep traveling together, and eventually she gets pregnant so they marry, and “settle down” in New York with their son Eli. But Peggy is still restless and flees to London, while Tom moves to California, and tries Buddhist meditation to steady himself. He eventually marries Mattina, who owns some objects that her ancestor, a missionary in China sent home. In “Ideas of Heaven,” we see that ancestor in the late 19th Century heading off to China with her husband and children, where they are eventually slaughtered in the Boxer rebellion, save for one child who was sent home earlier. The last story in the ring is “The Same Ground,” in which Giles marries Sylvie, and they have a son, Marc. Sylvie is killed by a bomb at the Chinese embassy in Paris, possibly placed by Uighur separatists. For years he is isolated, although he goes to Jazz clubs (he sees Andre, who had been Duncan’s lover in “The High Road”) and sleeps with a few women (including Peggy, from “Ashes of Love”) and eventually meets and falls in love with Alice (from “My Shape”). The stories are about sex and religion and seeking, and indeed imagining what life is like and what life could be like and what life is like when it is over. From a technical viewpoint, I found them to be very “told” in the sense that the narrators were really telling stories, not “showing” what happened. They weren’t less engaging for that, but it was worth observing.

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