(Reviewed by Kirstin Merrihew APR 14, 2008)
"In one picture she was sitting on the windowsill in their hotel room, wrapped in a thin sheet. It was a large window that opened outward. Outside it was a lazy afternoon; inside signs of the morning still lingered on the bed. Everything seemed so pure and innocent that the picture might have been taken before sin ever entered the world."
Each story about love in Olaf Olafsson's Valentines begins innocently. The world Olafsson portrays in unadorned language is not a forbidding one. The people he creates for his world aren't incorrigible villains, just regular human beings who do the best they can. But along comes some critical fulcrum for change to test these regular folks and -- oops -- they stumble and fall. In each of the twelve tales -- named after the months of the year -- someone seizes up like a frozen machine gear.
Olafsson structures the stories in this collection on the writer's "Freitag curve," which means that plot-wise he negotiates a gradual incline, until, at top, he tumbles down a steep slope: First he carefully sets the scene and introduces his characters and their back story. Then he zeroes in on the current jam in which they find themselves. When all is in place, he ignites the time-bomb climax, changing their circumstances forever. Finally, he slides into a short denouement and loaded resolution.
Many of the characters imitate Olafsson by living in the U.S. at least part of the year but hailing from Iceland. Their normally reserved Icelandic temperaments often contribute to their predicaments. As a character in Deanna Raybourn's mystery, Silent in the Sanctuary (a novel I also just read), notes, "To speak loudly is simply the way of southerners [southern Europeans]. They are very different from those of us bred in the north. We are cooler and more temperate, like the climate." Many of the Valentines characters are so cool, so retiring, so introverted that they cannot bring themselves to declare love, vent anger constructively, or cope with other feelings, and these withholdings bring suffering to them and those they love...or profess to.
One of men in Valentines, for example, seeks out an old girlfriend after many years, marriage on his mind. But when she confides in him and pleads with him to do something for her, he makes her a rash promise. Can he keep it?
Then there is the Icelandic couple, Margret and Oskar, who take their son, Jonas, to a lake cabin. Oskar and the boy go out on the water in a boat to fish one evening, and before they go back to shore, the father gives in to Jonas' wheedling and does some hot-dogging with the little craft. They overturn and are dumped into frigid waters. Margret, horrified, watches what happens from the cabin window and, later, takes opportunity where she may to deal Oskar a blow of vengeance for what he failed to do while struggling in the icy waves.
In the almost Hitchcockian "June," a humiliated son-in-law learns a sexual secret about his wife's widowed father; he doesn't keep it to himself, trading humiliation for humiliation.
In "July," photographer Magnus Thor feels his career has atrophied, and he longs to recapture the magic of his early photo shoots. But when it comes to a young, nubile model, Magnus and his wife, Inga, don't agree on how much creative license is allowed.
And a raw tale about the frightful costs of alcoholism tells of a man who isn't sure he wants his wife to wake up from a coma if it means she will find out what his relapsed drinking wrought.
Olafsson's Valentines stand in interesting counterpoint to two other short story collections I recently read: His language is more economical than that of Annie Proulx in Close Range. Her stories sometimes seem overstuffed and the prose sometimes labored. Not so with Olafsson. And unlike the also fine but rather plotless collection, Pilgrims, by Elizabeth Gilbert, Olafsson's stories, as mentioned above, adhere to a consistent structure. Although both Gilbert and Olafsson share the tendency to focus on micro dramas, the consequences in her stories can almost drift into nothingness; Olafsson opts for more tangibility.
Anyone seeking spare, focused stories that reveal cracks in the human psyche and the delicate nature of love is encouraged to pick up Valentines. The people Olafsson "follows around" are flawed in the way we all are, and every time a new "month" comes up, the reader will likely keep fingers crossed that this time, the characters will deviate from the path that leads to regret and heartache. Hope does spring eternal for most of us -- though, in this volume, Olafsson has other ideas....
Olafsson has written novels too. Judi Clark reviewed The Journey Home, and Mary Whipple contributed thoughts on Walking into the Night. These earlier works by Olafsson are on my "future reading" list, and here's hoping the literary world hears much more from this talented author.
- Amazon readers rating: from 3 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Valentines at Anchor Books
(back to top)
Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Absolution (1991)
- The Journey Home (2000)
- Walking into the Night (2003)
- Valentines: Stories (2007)
- Restoration (February 2012)
(back to top)
- Official website for Olaf Olafsson
- MostlyFiction.com reveiw of The Journey Home
- MostlyFiction.com review of Walking into the Night
(back to top)
About the Author:
Olaf Olafsson leads two dramatically distinct lives. He is vice chairman of Time Warner Digital Media in New York City and is Iceland's best-selling novelist. In Iceland, The Journey Home became the highest selling work of fiction in Iceland's history.
He is the founder and former president and CEO of Sony Interactive Entertainment, Inc., a unit of Sony Corporation established in 1991. While at Sony Interactive, Olafsson built and managed the worldwide operations of Sony's entertainment software and hardware divisions and was responsible for the introduction of acclaimed Playstation. He held several other positions at Sony, having begun his career at the company as a researcher in 1985.
Since November 1999, Olafsson has been vice chairman of Timer Warner Digital Media. He is responsible for developing strategic business plans for Time Warner's diverse digital media businesses and identifying growth opportunities for the company in the digital realm.
Olaf Olafsson was born in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1962. He studied as a Wien Scholar at Brandeis University where he received his degree in physics. He lives in New York City with his wife and two sons, while maintaining a residence in Iceland. He enjoys the arts, cooking, glacier skiing, salmon fishing, and soccer.